Paris Café: the Sélect Crowd

04/03/2008 06:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I fell in love with Paris in the cafés of Montparnasse. It was Spring 1999, I was on my junior year abroad, and, a confirmed Anglophile and English major, I had wanted to study in London. But circumstances conspired to send me to Paris instead, and this cosmopolitan switch-off was like missing a flight and meeting my husband-to-be on the next one. Five years later I moved to Paris for good.

That semester, I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse, as I walked every day from my apartment at one end to my school at the other, getting to know each cafe intimately, from the legendary La Coupole to the new, scruffy the Café Atelier. I learned to pick the best available table based on a combination of different factors: available sunlight, sufficient proximity from smokers (cough!), an interesting view onto the street, but not too far out into the sidewalk that I'd have to uncross my legs to let every passer by. I learned it was inappropriate to drink café crème after breakfast, so I trained myself to drink espresso, and eventually discovered the joy that is the more socially acceptable noisette-- espresso with a dollop of milk.

The café became an interstitial space, not home, not school, and not a restaurant; just a place to be. I had read A Moveable Feast; I knew the cliché; I bought blank notebooks and began to record my impressions of Paris, of myself in new surroundings, of my relationships, of my future hopes. I found I had opinions, I listened to other peoples' conversations, I speculated about their lives, I imagined myself caught in a powerful flirtation with the brooding young man at the corner table, hunched over--what was he reading? Rousseau? Breton? Houellebecq? In other words, the cafés of Montparnasse made a writer of me.

After my fizzy undergrad years, my affection for the cafés of Montparnasse waned; I took up residence in other cafes; Les Editeurs, near Odéon; Le Bar du Marché, in Saint Germain; and hipper cafés in the 10th and 11th: Le Pause Café, Café Prune, Café Charbon. But there is one Montparnasse café that I go back to all the time, which has withstood the test of time (and my outgrowing the literary Paris myth): Le Sélect, a mid-sized café with an elegant Franco-colonial decor and the heavy atmosphere that makes café-haunting such an inspiring way to spend the afternoon.

This café is now the subject of a slender new volume from Soft Skull Press. Paris Café: The Sélect Crowd, by Noel Riley Fitch, an accomplished historian of 20th century literary Paris, and Rick Tulka, an illustrator for Mad Magazine. Told briskly and peopled with fascinating illustrations, the book lets readers in on the daily workings of the café, which the authors call "the theatre of the unexpected," and tries to capture exactly what it is that makes Le Sélect so special.

Le Sélect sits firmly in the Montparnasse tradition; it is featured in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises; it has welcomed a parade of historical figures from Man Ray to Samuel Beckett to James Baldwin; but it is not quite as well-known as the other legendary Parisian cafés like La Rotonde, Les Deux Magots, or the Cafe du Flore. This, Fitch says, is one of the cafés saving graces: the tourists don't know what to make of it. It is not a restaurant, but a brasserie (managed by the 3rd generation of the Plégat family), which apparently throws off the tourists; it does not sell souvenirs with the Sélect logo on them; it does not advertise itself as a fixture in France's intellectual heritage. By remaining in a continuous present, without repackaging its past, Le Sélect retains the "soul of Montparnasse."

Fitch dispenses historical gossip as well as any bartender (Hart Crane started a bar brawl, Isadora Duncan threw a saucer across the room, outraged at the Saccco and Vanzetti trial, Sartre and Beauvoir gawked at the lesbians, and--fast forward--Bill Murray thinks they make the best croque monsieur in Paris). But it is the illustrations by Rick Tulka, featuring a vast catalog of French physiognomy, that really get the reader in the door and seated down at a table with a strong glass of Ricard. Tulka's whimsical sketches of the clientele and staff at Le Sélect capture the eccentricity of his subjects while lending them an air of universality, and in so doing Tulka situates himself midway between Al Hirschfeld and Pietro Longhi. "At Le Sélect on any given day," we learn, "more nasal varieties will pass through than there are cheeses in France." Tulka has captured at least half of them.

Fitch quotes one habitué, who says that a café is for "'people who want to be alone but need company for it.'" Between the community of the Sélect Crowd, the dedication of the staff, and the ghosts of luminaries past, Fitch and Tulka make it clear that a day spent at Le Sélect is a day spent alone in good company, for those lucky enough to live in or visit Paris. As for this Parisian café-goer, they've made me fall in love all over again. If you do visit Le Sélect, look for me perched on the wooden banquette in the back room, pen in hand, getting it all down on paper.