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Old Books on Front Street owner Gwenyfar Rohler poses with her James Joyce finger puppet during Bloomsday 2011. Courtesy photo.

Ireland may be an ocean away from Wilmington, NC, but June 16th will bring a little piece of the Celtic right here to our own community. Celebrations for Old Books on Front Street’s annual Bloomsday event get underway Saturday.

An annual holiday, Bloomsday was established to honor the life and career of author James Joyce—in particular, his famous novel “Ulysses.” Joyce wrote novels including “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and a collection of short stories called “Dubliners”; though, “Ulysses” is one of his most beloved works.

Chronicling an ordinary day in the life of the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, the title is an obvious reference to Homer’s “Odyssey.” Many parallels are established between the novel and Homer’s epic poem. With a staggering 700-plus page-count, this stream-of-consciousness literary giant can be an intimidating read but, more importantly, it’s an historical staple in literature. The book was banned in both the United States and the United Kingdom around 1920 for obscenity, as a result of a passage in which the main character masturbates. Gwenyfar Rohler, owner and operator of Old Books, is particularly drawn to the history of literary censorship.

“‘Ulysses’ is still an incredibly graphic book,” she admits, “but I would say that about many books. However, if we live in an entirely sanitized environment, we will cease to feel and experience.”

All events in the book take place during one day: June 16, 1904. The date became an obvious choice on which to celebrate Bloomsday, whose title originated from the main character’s surname. The first celebration occurred in 1954 when a handful of “Ulysses” and Joyce admirers spent the day traveling through Dublin, visiting landmarks from the book, such as Davy Byrne’s Pub. They even assigned each other roles from the novel.

Now recognized in several countries, including Hungary, Italy, Australia and the U.S., Dublin still hosts Bloomsday festivities, but today they do so at its official home, the James Joyce Centre. Fans of the book often dress in Edwardian costumes, retrace Leopold Bloom’s route through the city, visit local pubs and even hold marathon readings of the entire novel.

Just last year, Rohler hosted Old Books’ inaugural celebration with Guinness on tap, Irish snacks from the bookstore’s home bakery, Sugar on Front, and, like its worldwide celebrations, a marathon reading from local writers, actors, everyday citizens and the like. “I wanted us to be part of something that was an international event,” Rohler explains. “The idea that our little bookstore would be a small piece of that was very appealing.”

The readers managed to get through 120 pages of “Ulysses” in seven hours. This year instead of reading the book in general, Rohler opted to do a reading of the play within “Ulysses,” which takes up 150 pages. Rohler turned to her old friend, Changing Channels’ funnyman and local restaurateur of The Scoop, Jef Pollock. Pollock will be directing the readers of the play.

“Jef has a background in performing arts,” Rohler explains, “and he doesn’t like the idea of censorship either. So he was a logical choice.”

“It’s a chance to hear Joyce’s laborious writing without actually having to read through it,” Pollock quips. “And there will be points for audience participation, like a call-and-response. I promise it will be a rip-roaring good time.”

Pollock’s ice-cream and sandwich shop also will provide food for the event, including a special Bloomsday-inspired hotdog and possibly an ice-cream surprise. Of course, desserts from Sugar on Front will include traditional Irish sweets and coffee.

“We’re very centered on supporting local businesses,” Rohler says. “It will be fun and it will be chaotic, which will very much keep in the spirit of ‘Ulysses.’”

Based on last year’s turnout—featuring around 70 people throughout the day—Rohler keeps the faith that support will continue to grow. “Last year was really sort of a surprise,” she admits. “We didn’t know what to expect. We had a number of children read—the youngest was 5 years old. I just started crying. I remembering thinking there is a future for humanity: There’s a 5-year-old onstage reading James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’”

Though the 2012 event will be drawn from a different portion of the book, it is not G-rated. “It’s not appropriate for 5-year-olds this year,” Rohler forewarns.

The Bloomsday festivities will be held at Old Books on Front Street, located at 249 N. Front Street. The reading of the play from “Ulysses” will start at 4:30 p.m.; Rohler expects the day to conclude around 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. For more information on the reading or the bookstore, visit http://oldbooksonfrontst.com or call (910) 76-BOOKS.

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