Barbara Neal proudly admits that her first impetus for organizing a conversation salon had a lot to do with motherly instinct. Her son, Craig Neal, was publisher of Utne Reader in 1991, the year the magazine invited readers all over the country to revive the art of conversation by forming salons on the model of the great talkfests of the past, from 18th-century France to 20th-century Greenwich Village. 'What kind of a mother would I have been if I hadn't followed through?' she asks with a laugh. Like thousands of others, Neal, 80, contacted Utne's Neighborhood Salon Association (since discontinued) for a list of would-be salonistas in her area, east-central Florida. Neal called some numbers, a woman in Palm Beach called her, and soon a group of five had assembled.
The initial goal of the salon was general conversation -- 'but it soon boiled down to politics,' says Neal. Today, the salon has evolved into a lively group of about a dozen who meet monthly at various members' homes. Although the salon ranges widely in age, there's often a good deal of political agreement. 'We're all flaming liberals,' says Neal, 'so we have to work hard sometimes to have a pro and con. Luckily, one of our members is a lawyer, and he loves to play devil's advocate and stir things up.'
For Neal, the salon has been an excellent way to meet and stay in touch with like-minded people. Born in Detroit, she lived for many years in New Jersey, where she ran a bookstore. ('It was called the Book Barn, and it had two fireplaces. It was so quaint you could throw up,' she says.) After relocating to Lake Worth, Florida, in 1986, she found that she missed the lively day-to-day contacts she had in the store. 'People who buy books are interesting people,' as she puts it. Her sturdy, long-lasting salon has provided this politically passionate woman with allies in a generally conservative or apolitical environment -- and they've given her plenty of emotional support too. 'Most of my neighbors don't even read newspapers,' she says. 'But the salon people are my closest friends, the people I like best in the world.'
(Learn about Utne's election-year conversation initiative on page 60.)
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