37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris
In my wandering time in Paris, I often find myself step into this small green cozy bookshop called Shakespeare and Company. It is one legendary english bookshop with long literary history, situated in the left bank part of Paris, just at the edge of the Quartier Latin. I love its various collections of books, mostly on literature, travel writing, memoir, poetry, with some bookshelves on philosophy, drama and theatre, science, arts. Classic and contemporary. Specifically I always enjoy its ambiance, with books just almost everywhere, bottom to top, wall to wall, arranged sometimes casually in the old wooden shelves. It’s just so easy to feel like at home there.
Founded and owned by George Whitman, an american origin but for the last sixty years has made Paris his home. George had found himself in Paris after the second world war and not wanting to return to America right away. He enrolled at Sorbonne to improve his french and found a small hotel room on Boulevard St. Michel. During his study, he amassed a large collection of english books and used his room as library and bookstore. It was only after his conversation with his friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (of City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco) that George took seriously the notion of opening a bookshop in Paris. It was in 1951. So after having managed to acquire a small appartment opposite Notre Dame de Paris, he moved in his collections of books and opened this bookshop, first named it Le Mistral, then changed to Shakespeare & Company to honor his literary friend, Sylvia Beach.
The name Shakespeare and Company cannot be separated from a literary figure around that era, Sylvia Beach (1887-1962). She was the owner of a bookshop named Shakespeare and Company located in Rue de l’Odéon. She used to lend books to Hemingway, and edited, retyped and published Ulysses for Joyce in 1922, an era where Ulysses was banned for its sexuallity controversial contents. She also known as generous figure in supporting writers. The bookshop was closed down during the occupation when Sylvia refused to sell her last copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to a Nazi officer. After that, Sylvia did not want to open a bookstore anymore. It was George who then continued her legacy of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, and so named his own bookshop the same. He also continues inviting writers and encouraging new writers, in his own way.
“This is a creed of hotel thumbleweed, give what you can, take what you need” is just to express George’s ideal in encouraging young writers, known as “thumbleweeds”, and the bookshop has become sort of sanctuary for aspiring writers. An experience back in his young years had impacted him to do this spirit. While he was walking through South America, he was falling sick and was helped by local people, taken to their village and fed by a nursing mother. “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise“… as it is then written on the head of one of its doors. So if you are a writer or a writer-to-be, you can come to Shakespeare and Company and ask for a simple bed to stay the nights, while you can work on your writing. All he asks is that you make your own bed in the morning, help out in the bookshop for a couple of hours a day, and read a book a day. So far many writers have shared the beds of this bookshop; Henry Miller, Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, Willian Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell, to name just a few. And this tradition continues till now, with new writers come and live in the bookshop. For more than 50 years, George has kept his utopian ideals in this changing world.
Walk by the lines of books, and hear the voices of the pages… Never without wonders, they take you to different times, different places…
This place is just so magical in its own way, and I love it!
The ground floor is for the bookshop, mostly for new books. The used books are normally put outside in the terrace, arranged in boxes or in old suitcases. The first floor is for children books and library. Every monday evening there is a reading session, held in the library, of a writer whose book is being sold at the shop. Sometimes the reading can also involve a piano playing, a music or theatre session. Since recent years, they have been conducting a biennial literary festival, which has hosted many famous writers. The bookshop is now managed by George’s daughter, Sylvia Whitman.
(Some of the contents of this writing was taken from the bookshop website (www.shakespeareandcompany.com), the memoir book by Jeremy Mercer, and some open sites in the internet).
Paris, February, 2010