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.
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.
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?