D.G. Wills Books’ 40th St. Patrick’s Day Open Reading of Poetry and Prose will be its last. Bookstore owner Dennis Wills is closing the book on this annual drunken haze of spoken-word merriment.
“It’s time,” said Wills, who is 72. “It’s been a lot of fun, but I don’t want to just do this until I drop dead and then leave it with my friends. I kind of want to stop it on my own terms.”
The reading was suggested by the late poet Joan Lindgren in 1979, at the former D.G. Wills location on La Jolla Boulevard. The idea was for anyone to sign up and read anything by their favorite Irish author. Most chose a few pages from the usual suspects (James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett or Oscar Wilde). But some just used their seven-or-fewer minutes to tell an Irish joke or read U2 lyrics.
“This was never an intellectual event, or even a polite one,” said Wills, who suspects he may be either Irish or English but isn’t sure. “Tons of work is required to prep the store that people never see, and it kind of wears me out.”
The work includes setting up a sound system, clearing junk off the store’s famously cluttered front table and hanging up tarps so nobody spills beer or throws up on the books.
“Alcohol use was encouraged from the beginning,” Wills explained. In fact, the sound system was initially brought in so that readers could be heard over the loud clinking of Guinness and whiskey bottles.
“We were a lot younger then,” he said.
One year, Wills said, a Marine friend of his got so buzzed, he decided that reading some of of Joyce’s X-rated letters (written to his wife and published in the James Joyce Quarterly) would be a great idea while the audience still included a couple and their teenage daughter.
“We learned not to let that happen again,” Wills said, “so we wait until after anyone who might be offended is gone, and then we announce that we’re doing it beforehand.” (Doing the naughty honors for the final time will be local author Bill Swank.)
Wills reckons the event peaked around 2005. He recalled the opera singer but not his name, the retired professor who always recited Knute Rockne’s “Win One For the Gipper” speech and, of course, Professor Denis Callahan.
“They’re gone now,” Wills said. “All the great readers are gone.”After Callahan, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin who taught at Southwestern College, died in 2006, Wills purchased his personal treasury of a few thousand books. Many are still used to read from — marked with the late professor’s notes and highlights.
Wills, who brushes off the light cough punctuating his sentences for the past year as “just dust or something,” says he wanted to stop the reading at a milestone anniversary and he’s “too old to contemplate trying to make it to the 50th.”
Although the reading has always started at 7 p.m., its final iteration will begin three hours earlier, Wills said, “because I don’t want to be here until all hours on a Sunday night.”
Wills has left the door open for future St. Patrick’s Day readings, but they won’t be official.
“If I’m still around, there’s nothing to prevent us from having an unofficial gathering among my friends over a few drinks here,” he said.
IF YOU GO: The 40th St. Patrick’s Day Open Reading of Poetry and Prose will take place 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 17 at D.G. Wills Books, 7661 Girard Ave. Admission is free. (858) 456-1800.