Dennis Wills staged his 40th and final St. Patrick’s Day Open Reading of Poetry and Prose on Sunday, March 17 at D.G. Wills Books. Attracting 200 people — about 40 of whom read Irish literature passages for three-to-seven minutes each — the event ran from 4 to 8 p.m., three hours earlier than usual so that Wills could get to bed at a decent hour.
“I’m not sad, I’m tired,” Wills said. “That’s how you feel at 72. It’s a lot of work to put on. The store won’t be back in order for weeks.”
The final event was divided into three sets. In the first, La Jolla resident John Hughes read some Edmund Burke, and author and baseball historian Bill Swank read a poem about Ted Williams. Since traditionally, Swank has read Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” artist Christopher Canole elected to fill the void. Decked out as his Steampunk-meets-Star Wars-inspired character, Dude Vader, he held his phone to the microphone as the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones, and read “Casey at the Bat.”
Canole said he found the event bittersweet. “I’m going to miss this,” he said. “I can’t think of another La Jolla event we do that’s 40 years old, and we need these types of universal public gatherings in our town. There are many people I only see at this event.”
The idea of a St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading was suggested by the late poet Joan Lindgren in 1979, at the former D.G. Wills location on La Jolla Boulevard. Wills recalls the early readings as “like attending a graduate seminar in Irish literature.” Wills preserved many of his favorites — readers such as Southwestern College professor Denis Callahan and San Diego State University professor Allan Anderson — on video posted at dgwillsbooks.com for future generations.
“I’m grateful that we left a legacy of great readings,” Wills said.
For the final set of the final event — devoted as per tradition to X-rated letters written by James Joyce to his wife — Wills turned off the loudspeaker broadcasting to a spillover crowd outside.
“I only wanted those inside to hear words like (expletive), (expletive) and (expletive),” Wills said, snickering like a naughty boy.
La Jolla resident James Rudolph — son of Harry’s Coffee Shop founder Harry Rudolph — has attended each of Wills’ past 20 readings and said he thinks his good friend “has done his duty and deserves a rest.” Nevertheless, he called it “sorrowful because it signals the end of a very beloved and longstanding La Jolla tradition that allows for bonhomie and that rarest of occurrences these days — open and sophisticated dialog.
“Also,” Rudolph added, “St. Patrick’s Day is my birthday, so Dennis always gives me a beer and a book.”
In the future, Wills said he’ll stage a private St. Patrick’s Day reading — exclusively for old friends who want to stop by, drink and read with him.
“There won’t be a press release,” he said.