The Adams Avenue Bookstore in Normal Heights is closing after 53 years of operation. I stopped in at the Store Closing sale, and overheard one fellow tell another that he had 16,000 books in his North Park home.
The bibliophile in question was John Drehner, just turned 80 and hunting in the Foreign Language section for books in Esperanto, the unidiosyncratic, regularized, universal language developed in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof. “He thought it would be a help to solve international problems,” said Drehner. “But there are people who speak English who kill each other, and people who speak Arabic who kill each other, so it’s not just a problem of language.”
The San Diego chapter of the Esperanto society is not as active as it once was, but Drehner still pays his dues and keeps up on his reading. He likes language, its form and structure. “It can give you insight into the culture of the speakers. For instance, there’s no word in Russian for ‘privacy.’ And the Spanish form of ‘Look before you leap’ translates to, ‘Before you get married, look at what you do.’”
He spent his working life with the Post Office, and never made professional use of his Master’s on Joseph Conrad. “I liked his style, and I really admired him. He was born in Krakow under Russian domination, and so he spoke Polish and French.” But Conrad learned English while working for the British Merchant Marine, and when he started writing, he chose his adopted tongue, “feeling it was the most flexible. French is precise, but you have so many synonyms and adjectives in English. He could write more colorfully.”
3502 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
Drehner cites The Iliad and The Odyssey as favorites, and admires Orwell for his insight. “People should read his essays as an exercise in how to write clearly and make cogent points. And of course, I like Mark Twain. He kind of said it all with Huckleberry Finn — a Great American Novel.”
Drehner’s parents started him reading with a 1937 edition of My Book House: twelve hardcovers of increasing sophistication, plus travel books on France, Holland, and Japan. These days, he’s reading a book by local linguist Richard Lederer, some Ross MacDonald, a biography of Judy Garland, and “a book about cats called The Lion in the Living Room. I still read a lot of serious stuff, but a lot of lightweight stuff, too. A lot of mysteries, and a lot of movie books. I do about 30 impressions of older actors.”
He rolled out Bogart from Casablanca, then skipped over to JFK chatting with actor-President Ronald Reagan. “I really like [impressionist] Frank Gorshin; he did great ones of Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, and Burt Lancaster. I would do shows at senior centers; I’d be Ed Sullivan, and I’d bring in John Wayne or Dean Martin. People would say, ‘The younger people, they don’t even know who these people are.’ Okay, fine, but who’s doing impressions of the new actors? Who’s doing Matt Damon or Hugh Jackman?’” They had voices then.