How that bear came to be in that bar and why the bar burned, I never knew. Whenever we visited our second home in Henderson, La., we drove by the bear at least once a day. In weak attempts at gallows humor, we gave it nicknames: Smoky the Bar. Crispy Critter.
The bar never came back, and the bear eventually went away.
And that's why I had a Louisiana moment on a trendy street in Paris recently, visiting an odd and famous shop called Deyrolle on the Left Bank' s Rue du Bac. In 1888 the natural-history collections of the Deyrolle family were moved to this mansion. For nine generations they had been known as master tapestry weavers, but I guess that game got old. The Deyrolles began collecting and selling specimens and publishing zoological papers.
People brought in their beloved dead pets to be stuffed, then conveniently moved on, forgetting all about returning to pick up and pay. Big-game hunters brought in big game and left an extra rhino or giraffe as a tip. So the collection became both exotic and domestic, soup to nuts, chickens to polar bears.
I first read about Deyrolle in the most beautiful of books, Adam Gopnik's "Paris to the Moon." The man could write about individual grains of beach sand and make it fascinating and important. He described the taxidermized animals in Deyrolle as "looking bored and social, like writers at a New York book party."
I had planned to visit in 2008, but a terrible fire had destroyed much of the collection that year, leaving, yes, a charred bear or two. All of France rallied, sending stuffed specimens from attics, display cases from provincial museums. Hermes issued a limited-edition scarf, proceeds to benefit Deyrolle.
"It touched the memory of many generations," owner Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie told The New York Times.
I was glad to hear Deyrolle was on its way back, with lions and butterflies and tigers and giraffes and poodles all sharing floor space. And I was reminded of the place when Woody Allen's movie valentine called "Midnight in Paris" set a wedding scene in the shop. I tried again.
I asked if I had reached the museum; the first floor is mostly a garden shop now. The clerk said, "It is not a museum, but a shop." She was right.
You could buy the elephant if you had 20,000 euro, or the polar bear for 45,000. A skunk would only set you back 6,000. A muskrat, or "rat musque," costs 620, but a regular rat only 250.
I bought only a 10 euro book about the fire and the restoration project, which, I can attest, has been successful. You'd never guess it wasn't the same as it has been for generations, or when Surrealists such as Dali and Breton used to visit for inspiration.
Not to everyone's taste, I' m sure, the shop is a zoo where nothing eats, smells or moves. It is a science lesson with three-dimensional, sad-eyed props, a history lesson if you consider its countless former visitors, a cultural lesson if you care to go there.
And it is, despite the clerk's declaration, a museum. A museum of art.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.