Seasoned Salonistas

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
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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