A beloved Paris institution, the Village Voice Bookshop, will go out of business at the end of July. The Voice has been one of the best English-language bookstores not just in Paris, but in all of Europe. It is full of character: its eclectic collection includes not only the latest English novels, but also such relatively esoteric perennials as John Mepham's Virginia Woolf, Michael Gray's Song and Dance Man, and the wonderful mysteries of Fred Vargas. The soul of the shop is the opinionated English manager, Michael Neal, who has long presided benevolently from the strategically-located cash desk. He has often offered enthusiastic recommendations about which books I should buy, followed by mild but imaginative insults when I ignored those suggestions. On a recent quiet Sunday afternoon, he sat down with me to talk about the history of the bookshop, and to share some of his memories.
The Voice was founded in 1982 by Odile Hellier, who had become a compulsive reader of books in English during a decade living in the United States. When she returned to Paris, she couldn't find a bookshop to feed her habit, so she started her own. She liked the name Village Voice, and got permission from the American newspaper to use it. When she first opened the bookshop, on the tiny Rue Princesse in Saint Germain, it was divided between books and a tea shop. Over time, expanding bookshelves won out over refreshments, and the Voice became strictly a bookshop.
Michael Neal was working as an antiquarian bookseller when he came into the Village Voice one day in 1993, and saw a large pile of parcels sitting under the front table. He told Hellier she should move the parcels upstairs, and she replied, "Do it yourself." He thought that was a good idea, so he did it. He began opening the packages, and that was the start of his career at the shop. He has worked there five or six days a week ever since.
The Voice has hosted readings by hundreds of visiting authors. Some stand out in Neal's memory. The funniest was by David Sedaris, who read a story about a little old lady with a sock on her hand who sat beside him on a bus. The most frightening was by James Ellroy. The most surprising was by Alain de Botton: Neal couldn't believe someone so young could write such mature prose. The most pathetic was by the poet Adrienne Rich, who was so frail she couldn't walk up the bookshop's staircase, and had to do her reading downstairs. The worst reading was by the sexologist Shere Hite; Neal discreetly commented only that she had trouble answering questions.
Neal's greatest pleasure in managing the Voice is simply "when someone is looking for a book, and we have it." He has consistently been surprised at how grateful customers are for the bookshop. The most amusing thing to him is "how often people come into the shop and ask, 'Do you have that book everyone's talking about?'" His response is patiently to try to guess which book they mean. The Voice's biggest seller over the past two decades has been George Orwell's Why I Write, "because I force it on all our customers."
Neal loves the Beach Boys, but he reveres Bob Dylan. He likes to quote from Highway 61 Revisited, and has enlarged his vocabulary by studying Dylan's lyrics ("bleachers" is a particular favorite). He told me his greatest fear in managing the Voice is that Dylan would come into the shop. This surprised me: most people would love to meet their idol. But Neal explained, with typical English reticence, "Mustn't bother people," and he was afraid he wouldn't be able to maintain this discipline with Dylan: "I'd probably ask him some silly question, which is why he mustn't come here." So far, so good: Dylan has never stopped into the Voice.
Sadly, the Village Voice is closing, a victim of the Internet and La Crise Économique. Bob Dylan, if you're reading this article: please stay away from the Rue Princesse for the next six weeks. For everyone else, you have until the end of July to visit one of the most interesting bookshops you'll ever come across.
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