At Shakespeare and Company, you’re at Point Zero for English Lit in Paris
On my list of places to visit on this trip was the legendary, one-of-a-kind English book store, Shakespeare & Company, aka the rag and bone shop of the heart. I knew it would be just around the corner from our place, and lo and behold, we walked right past it on the way from the St Michel metro station to our apartment the day we arrived.
But I hadn’t really done my homework on the store and didn’t know what lay in store, as it were. Ha! What a wonderful surprise this was.
Just a quick aside, this is the second English book store in Paris to be called Shakespeare & Company. The first was opened by Sylvia Beach in the 1913 and closed during the German occupation of Paris during WWII and never re-opened. It was at 12 Rue l’Odeon, a magnet for Paris’s English-speaking community. There are endless stories about Beach being a handmaiden to down-and-out visitors, finding them a place to sleep, taking their mail and so on. This was the store in the pictures of Ms Beach with Ernest Hemmingway and James Joyce. She was the one who published Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else would touch it. But that all ended in the midst of WWII.
In 1951, “the Yank on the Left Bank” George Whitman opened a book store, Le Mistral at 37 rue de la Bûcherie. He had met Beach many times, and in 1962, when Beach attended a reading by Lawrence Durrell at the store, they agreed that it should be renamed Shakespeare and Company.
Whitman was the perfect one to carry the torch, because if anything, he was even more eccentric, more un-businesslike than Beach. Even today, wandering youth of the world who find themselves penniless in Paris, are attracted like moths to a flame to Shakespeare and Co, and if their demeanor is right, and their questions gentle, they may find themselves being put up in sleeping bags or mattresses on the floor between the book stacks.
These are Whitman’s famous “tumbleweeds” who may or may not help around the store in return for their bed, but crucially, must read a book a day all the way through (unless it’s War and Peace in which case they’re allowed two days) which they can simply take off the shelves. At any given time, there are fifteen to twenty tumbleweeds about, sitting on couches reading, stacking books, doing odd jobs, whatever it takes. How about that for a contribution to the literary world? It’s estimated that there have been over 50,000 tumbleweeds, some staying a few days, others for many months.
Whitman either wrote or adopted many sayings that show the true nature of his heart. Of the store, he said, “it’s a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Inside, you’ll find hand-painted signs including:
This is the creed of Hotel Tumbleweed
Give what you can, take what you need
Be not inhospitable to strangers
Lest they be angels in disguise
There’s far too much literary history between these walls to recount here, but consider that Whitman took in the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso (who continually stole both money and books from him).
There were ongoing communal dinners with both well-known and anonymous writers. Henry Miller ate from the stew pot. Anaïs Nin left her will under Whitman’s bed. Look around and you’ll find signed photos from Rudolf Nureyev and Jackie Kennedy, signed copies of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
This place really exists in a time-warp and for those who like to read and rummage around book stores, and even with everything else Paris offers, this could easily justify a few of your hours. Go on Sunday, and you might get invited to “tea with George” up on the top floor. It’s a fairly open house with the price of admission being an inquiring mind.
Before you go, spend some time on the Shakespeare and Company website. It’s very informative, and in keeping with the store, presents itself with a ragged-but-right design, with pockets of historical information if you click on the right pictures. Check the schedule. There are regular readings and events, sometimes with well-known American and British authors, which turn out to be parties. These pictures are of the launch of the iPad app Go Go Paris. A crowd was already there when I arrived. Champagne, yes real champagne, was poured freely to anyone who stopped for a minute to listen to the band, hear from the proud authors of the app, and just hang around.
People often ask whether George Whitman is still alive, and the good news is that yes, he’s in his late 90’s and lives up on the third floor of the store. His daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman (how apt) now runs the shop on a day-to-day basis, but not without the regular input of her father.
If you really want the inside view of the store, find a copy of Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There. Mercer, a crime reporter from Ottawa, was on the run from an underworld heavy and took off to Paris to hide. Soon, like many others before him, he found himself broke and became a tumbleweed. His book is a charm to read, full of funny stories and insights into Whitman’s character (back in the day you might have pulled a book from the shelf and uncovered a roll of money stuffed in behind because Whitman would just stash it there and forget about it – Sylvia has fixed that little quirk).
But as lovely as the book is, George didn’t like it – a few tales told out of school? – and it most definitely is NOT available at the store. So get it and read it before you go.
A couple of other things…. This is literally and figuratively Point Zero for not only the Parisian English literature community, but as it turns out, the rest of France. The store is directly across the Seine from the Notre Dame and in the cobbles in front of the cathedral is the Point Zero marker, the spot used for calculating distances from Paris. So, if you’re 100 km from Paris, you’re 100 km plus a stone’s throw from Shakespeare and Company. When you buy a book there, and you must buy at least one book to help keep this store going, they will ask whether you want a stamp inside the front of the book. Get it – it’s the Shakespeare and Company Kilometre Zero stamp.
When you visit, remember to go upstairs. You’ll find a chair and a table with a typewriter on it for the “writer in residence”. And who would that be? Well, anyone, actually who wants a space to write a book. How about you? Claim it if you think you can hang onto it.
In front of the store, you’ll see a beautiful green fountain. This is one of the many Wallace fountains that you’ll find around Paris. The water is safe to drink – that was the whole purpose of them – and you can fill up your water bottle. They were commissioned and donated by a wealthy Englishman Richard Wallace after Paris was bombarded during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and its water system was destroyed. So they are there for the homeless – perfect that there’s on in front of Shakespeare and Company – but even if you have a warm bed to sleep in, join the Parisians and enjoy the “people’s Perrier”. Read more about Wallace fountains here on Wikipedia.
Paris is full of glamour, breathtaking architecture, art, $1,000-a-couple restaurants (just down the street actually), couture, cathedrals and cafés. And then there is the heart of socialist utopia with the million-dollar view of the Seine and the Notre Dame. Your trip wouldn’t be complete if you missed it.
BTW, click on any of the pictures for much bigger versions.