10:30 p.m., standing in line outside Le Carmen Bar, Paris
“They’re really checking?”
“Looks like it.”
“You got yours?”
The young woman in front of me held up a paperback copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. “I’d love to find Virginia Woolf tonight, but I’d go for Bolaño too. And you?”
Diving into her huge glittery purse, her friend fished out Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. “I’m up for anyone,” she said.
The bouncer motioned them forward and the girls proffered their books. Taking a moment to check that these were real books with words and not fake cardboard cover emptiness, he nodded and unfastened the catch of the black velvet rope to let them pass.
And you’re in: you’ve just entered the exciting, unique Book Club at Le Carmen, a monthly book clubbing literary salon co-hosted and founded by Rosa Rankin-Gee and Jethro Turner. Rosa is Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine A Tale of Three Cities and Jethro is Creative Director. They started the Book Club in early 2011 and it was an immediate success, with nearly 300 people showing up to the party—and they keep coming back. “We’re told that books are dying,” Rosa says, “but here is proof that there are people who don’t want that to happen, who want to have thumbable, swappable books as the centerpiece of conversation for a whole evening.”
Rosa and Jethro found a beautiful place to host the Book Club: Le Carmen Bar, housed in a late nineteenth-century historically listed building where composer Georges Bizet lived—the bar and his famous opera share the same name—with lush décor, high ceilings, intimate side rooms and a delicate, spacious birdcage with a love seat where you can sit, sip your cocktail and peruse pages or people.
At the Book Club, it’s about the book and not the look. The principle is simple: bring a book you love and swap it. No complicated dress code or door code, come as is, book in hand. Well-thumbed paperback? Yes. War and Peace? Sure. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Great. Poems in Swahili? Of course. Any language, any genre, all night. The crowd is a mainly a mix of English and French speakers although you can hear a lot of different languages. During a previous Book Club evening, Rosa explains, “One guy came to the door of the club, but the bouncer wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have a book. He thought it was an intriguing idea so went to the nearest supermarket and bought what he could. He entered with Dan Brown and left with Orwell, Nietzsche and Proust.”
Cruising book titles a few weeks ago, I came across Lunch Poems, 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense, Around the World in Eighty Days (in French), The Catcher in the Rye, Poésies de Arthur Rimbaud, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and You Deserve Nothing.
And the choice doesn’t stop with books, but spills out to cocktails: custom-made, theme-inspired (Tequila Mockingbird and A Rum of One’s Own), or something from Le Carmen’s cocktail menu that, Rosa explains, “is based on sexual folklore from the area of Pigalle—playful, creative and very rude.” You can choose from L’Ange Gardien (the Guardian Angel) to La Vierge Rouge (the Red Virgin) and just about anything in between.
Every month is something new, surprising. The most recent Book Club theme, “On the Road/Sur la Route,” included all-night screenings of Kerouac’s short film “Pull My Daisy,” delicious hamburgers cooked up by Le Camion qui Fume (The Burning Truck)—the first real food truck in Paris—and a DJ set by Zavadil. Crowding around the bar, the man in front of me put down a copy of All My Friends Are Still Dead to look at cocktail menu, although he seemed to have found friends tonight as he ordered for them: double scotch no ice, a Guardian Angel, tonic water, and one Howl, please.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems have appeared in Post Road, Drunken Boat, Forklift Ohio, Mississippi Review and elsewhere. She’s a Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.