Of Ancient Manuscripts and Vinyl Records

Tomorrow, for the first time since our first family road trip in 2002, my husband and I will travel sans children.

But for now, as our son is following his college orientation, he gives us the opportunity to explore Pasadena and the Los Angeles area.

Most tourists bypass the Los Angeles County town when they visit California.

Perhaps some remember the movie The Laureate and the legendary song Mrs. Robinson.

Although I loved Dustin Hoffman in this movie and played Simon and Garfunkel a lot when I was a teenager in France, I didn’t search for Mrs. Robinson in Pasadena.

You already know that I love books and nature with equal passion.  I was spoiled in Pasadena.

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The Huntington Library is set on the grounds of a gorgeous botanical garden.

The Library’s Main Exhibition Hall features a collection of rare items. The most famous are the Gutenberg Bible, Audubon’s masterpiece The Birds of America, the manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is impossible to push back the emotion at the sight of these ancient writing pieces. I’m not a Shakespeare’s specialist neither a devoted fan but I was moved when I saw the first edition of his collected plays, published in 1623.

What I found the most stirring, however, is the way the collection is organized around periods of time. As I walked from one display to another, I was reminded that history and stories make one.

For example, a letter from Abraham Lincoln to his wartime generals is displayed next to documents related to the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 and the preservation of Yosemite as a wilderness area in 1864.

Jack London’s charred manuscript The Sea-Wolf shows how the writer who worried about a risk of fire on his Sonoma Valley ranch put his work into a safe in a San Francisco bank where it burned in the fire following the 1906 earthquake.

Published or not, the words of people who choose writing as their medium to express themselves, open a window on life at a given time.

As a woman and an immigrant, two displays touched me particularly:

Susan B. Anthony’s letter to fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady after Anthony cast an illegal vote in the presidential election of 1872.

A Chinese “coaching paper,” used by an immigrant in 1930 to prepare for U.S. government questions on entering the country.

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Later that day, we took a long walk along Melrose Avenue, in L.A. All over the world, many neighborhoods are losing their character and some streets look almost identical with indistinguishable stores selling the same clothes, furniture, and food. On Melrose, vintage clothing boutiques, tattoo parlors, dark pubs, and ethnic food narrow joints stand guard near Starbucks and the Apple store. I stopped in my tracks when I caught the sound of music filtering from an open door.

“Come on in,” called a man with a white bear. “How can you listen to music with so much traffic?”

Inside his store, coolness fell on my shoulders, mostly due to the dim light. Rows of crates filled with record lined the room.

I noticed how my husband paused when he entered. My heart had stalled in a similar way inside the Huntington Library.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” asked the record storeowner.

“Yes,” my husband said. “Carmen with Victoria de Los Angeles and Nicholas Gedda?”

“I have it.”

While the two of them started a passionate discussion about opera and classical music I walked around the shop. 500 000 records, had said the owner who had also introduced himself as Sanders Chase. His store reminded me of the much smaller shops at the Parisian Marché aux Puces. In my early days in Paris I lived within walking distance from the infamous flea market. Browsing the Record Collector on Melrose summoned other memories from another place. I used to spend long hours at the Puces, also searching for a special recording or unique concert.

My husband bought the 1959 recording of Carmen by the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française for la Voix de son Maitre.

We lingered in the store, listening to Mr. Chase’s stories about his immense collection, about Paris and London where he had lived years ago, and the famous musicians he had met. Again stories and history making one. The conversation spilled outside. A group of teenagers walked by.

“Oh,” said one girl. “Records!”

“So?’ her friend said.

Records,” the girl repeated while her friend’s thumbs hit the keys of her phone.

The boys who accompanied them hadn’t heard the exchange, their earphones plugged in. The group ambled away. Hesitantly, the girl caught up with her friends, but I saw how she turned longingly her head toward the store.

My husband pressed the simple brown bag against his chest as if holding a treasure, and we walked away as well.

Tell me, what is it with ancient manuscripts and vinyl records that make our hearts beat a little faster?

 

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Comments

  1. Wonderful post. Made me terribly homesick. I was born and raised in LA but have only been to the Huntington twice. It’s like a Mecca. And Melrose . . . I need to go back to LA. Soon. Thank you for this.

    • Thank you, Melinda, for your visit and comment. L.A. is a great city, giving all the meaning to “great.” Everywhere in the world I favor neighborhoods that try to fight against too much similarity. And bookshops, record stores, art galleries are my favorite destinations wherever I go.

  2. I’ve often thought if I collected anything, Evelyne, it would be old and rare books. Old records, not so much. I loved books all of my life and I am sure that some of the early ones are now collectors items. But there is more, a nostalgia for the past when we were younger and everything seemed so fresh, and maybe simpler. Even magic. I can picture you happily lost in Paris’s flea market. –Curt

    • When I was a little girl I already liked old objets. My dad joked about it because it was unusual for a kid to enjoy antique stores. I love history and I like to imagine the life of people who were there before me. Old books carry all of that and so much more. The flea market in Paris was one of my favorite places in the 80s. It has changed a little bus still interesting. See you on your blog, Curt.

  3. I enjoyed they way you wove this sll together. I love history and books and, although I have very few, vinyl records. My daughter is like the young girl you describe. She has many albums (as you and I know the term ) and she treasures them. It wouldn’t be an opera recording, but I know the feeling of finding something you have searched for for a long time.

    Seeing things that have survived the chaos and destructive nature of time is a previous moment. A few years ago we toured Gettysburg and I was moved by possessions of soldiers who fought and many who died in that battle. Great post!

    • I like it that young people see in albums or old books the dreams of people who lived before them. Like your daughter, when I search for a vinyl it would more likely be rock and pop music than opera. But the quest is the same.
      I haven’t yet been to Gettysburg but I intend to visit soon, I already know that I will be moved by the experience. Thank you, Dan, for your comment. See you on your blog.

  4. Evelyne you have out done yourself. You gave us such a lovely moment in time. Based on other comments I know it resonated with many — including me. Hugs,
    teagan

    • Your comment makes my day, Teagan. You know that the main reason I blog is to improve my English, so I’m thankful for your kind words. I will see you soon on your blog too.

  5. Great post Evelyne. As a fellow immigrant I really appreciate your narratives and particularly enjoyed this post, especially as I often unfairly refer to Los Angeles as 30-odd cities urgently searching for an identity, but there are some great communities to be found. I do share a love of Pasadena and it’s old town (although the pedant in me has to point out that the Huntington, of which my wife and I are members and regular visitors) is in fact in San Marino), the area between Sunset and Wilshire, Echo Park, Venice… the list is endless. I’ve never visited Record Collector (but now will) although I do get an undeniable thrill when ever I visit Amoeba Records.

    • You are right about the location of The Huntington, Steve. We stayed in a part of Pasadena that was really close to San Marino and I noticed my error after hitting the “Publish” button. So thank you for the precision. You’re lucky to be a member. I would too if I lived there. Funny that you mention Amoeba as the two names are always linked for people who collect. The owner of Record Collector has an extensive knowledge of his stuff. He loves to talk about it, so be ready! I always appreciate the visits of readers who are from a place I am only visiting. So thanks again for stopping by.

  6. Nice post, Evelyne. The gardens are beautiful and the hiking areas near Pasadena are gorgeous. (Also the food in the nearby San Gabriel Valley is delicious!)

    • Thank you, Jennifer, for stopping by. The gardens are really exceptional. We ate there under the trees that make such a perfect parasol. We also found a few good restaurants for dinner. I didn’t get the chance to explore the hiking trails, doing more city things. But I visit my son I’ll remember your tip!

  7. Sisyphus47 says:

    We hang on to the pleasure of “lost time”… http://ofglassandpaper.com/2014/04/25/atozaprilchallenge-vinyl/
    🙂

  8. I think our souls remember, in some way we cannot know. Enjoyed your post.

  9. What is it indeed about ancient manuscripts and vinyl records? I love how you capture the way we who appreciate these things feel when we come across them 🙂

    Having been to The Huntington Library and Melrose Avenue, many years ago, I felt as if you took me back there again, for a brief moment in time. Pasadena was a beautiful place to walk around the last time I visited (I had a close friends whose parents lived there in a beautiful house, having emigrated from Argentina many years before when she was ten and didn’t speak a word of English!!!).

    The way the cool hit your shoulders, so evocative of my memories of coming in from the sweltering heat to the cool of a shop. It is wonderful to find little treasures like these places, and even here in the UK, I struggle to find small towns where the shops are unique, filled to the brim with personality.

    Your acute observation of the young people outside… “So?” is very telling and I’ve seen this many times. There are those who are young who don’t want to be the same as their peers, who, like that young woman, would have loved to have explored the old record shop but couldn’t because her friends couldn’t care less. I hope that youngsters such as her will grow up and let their voices be heard against the cacophony of meaningless distraction.

    Beautifully written post as always Evelyne. You fill my senses with the touch of your pen!

    I hope you and your husband have a wonderful trip, just the two of you, and I wish you and your family a very Happy July 4th. I have many happy memories of spending the day on the beach with my children but of course now we are back in the UK, it is just a normal day for us, for obvious reasons! 😉

    • Thank you, Sherri, for another kind visit to my blog. Since you know Pasadena and the area, I’m glad that my personal experience echoed yours. Thank you also for your Happy Fourth of July’s wishes. I will post about it…in French. See you soon!

  10. Evelyne, what a wonderful tour you took us on, not only of the physical environment, but of the mind. My thoughts went in so many directions reading this – just the few books you mentioned so different and so evocative and all set in the lushness of a botanical garden. And the records too. When I was younger I spent many hours in small ‘alternative’, second hand record shops, flipping through the vinyl for a treasure. I still have all my old vinyl records in a room along with my books!

  11. I’m glad that my thoughts and impressions match yours. I am not nostalgic of the past and appreciate the way our modern tools help us to connect and communicate. But I agree with you that the small, alternative shops bring another kind of experience. Even if we buy, it feels less commercial. Perhaps because in these places the people who sell know their stuff and tell us stories about the books or records. Beyond the purchase there is a human exchange, deeper than in more typical stores. See you soon, Andrea.

  12. The human exchange is so important! Your post evokes this so wonderfully — the details tell a story that is much more than the details. I think it’s one reason people like farmers’ markets and artisans’ fairs: you get to talk with those who grew the vegetables, made the jam, or knit the socks that you’re buying. When I was a bookseller in Washington, D.C., long time ago, I loved introducing customers to new authors they might like. And there was a record store I frequented where one staffer knew I liked early music; when a new recording came in that he thought was exceptional, he’d call my attention to it. I’d usually buy it too: I trusted his taste. Amazon.com is always recommending books based on my browsing history, which has more to do with the fact-checking I do when I’m editing than with my personal preferences. There’s nothing human about it.

    P.S. Being an editor, I can’t shut up — the U.S. title of that Dustin Hoffman movie is The Graduate. 😉

    • You are totally right about the human exchange factor. You are also right about the title of the movie. I knew it and mixed it with the French translation Le Lauréat. This happens to me when I don’t pay attention! Thank you.

  13. Beautiful story of the past and books – very nice how you managed to weave this all together. These areas are beautiful with the hills and gardens. Love your writing in this piece.

  14. The museum must have been fascinating, and the record shop as well.
    When I went to Ireland, we saw “The Book of Kells” at trinity college, it was really wonderful.
    And as for the records, nothing stirs me as a vinyl record of Joan Baez or Cesaria Evora !

    • Thank you, Mary. I haven’t been to Trinity College but I imagine the thrill to see “The Book of Kells” there. Joan Baez on a vinyl is very cool too, I agree. See you soon.

  15. I think traveling with out children is a nice luxury…you get to do the stuff YOU want and not what they would like.

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

    • I’ve enjoyed many trips with my kids, but you’re right. I am enjoying a new feeling of freedom now that I am traveling alone with my husband. Thanks for stopping by, Linda.

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