Published on Sunday, 30 June 2013 00:00
The view from the front window of the ramshackle bookstore looks out past a few trees to the river Seine and beyond to Notre Dame, towering high on the Ile de la Cité. No. 37 rue de la Bûcherie is home to Shakespeare and Company, a Parisian writers’ and readers’ institution, specializing in English-language literature.
Upon setting foot into this quaint little bookstore in Paris, you will be greeted with wooden shelves filled with rows and rows of books closely-packed together. This is nothing like your mainstream, modern bookstore, history and books go hand-in-hand in Shakespeare and Company. Its antique charm and dim setting will engulf you, making you feel as though you have stepped into a wondrous world full of literary treasures. Hold on to your seat as I bring you through the tale of Shakespeare and Company.
This little bookstore has an interesting story behind it, though it may not seem like it, Shakespeare and Company has a long history. It was once owned by Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate from New Jersey, who was forced to have it shut down during the German occupation of France in World War II. After the war ended, Beach was too old and tired to reopen the store. Another American expatriate, George Whitman, took up the spirit of what she had made, and opened an English-language bookstore very much like hers, under the name of Le Mistral. After Beach’s death, Whitman changed the name of his bookstore to Shakespeare and Company, in tribute to the original venture.
Whitman had described the store’s name as being “a novel in three words”, and called the venture a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”.
The shop’s early customers included Beat Generation writers William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, as well as novelists Richard Wright, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. The bookstore offers sleeping and writing facilities to writers, musicians and artists. Whitman required them to provide a manuscript and a short autobiography in order to get in rent-free, in exchange for working 2 hours a day at the cashier, re-shelving books, cleaning, and running errands. Whitman has boasted that as many as 40,000 people have spent the night over in the store over the years.
After Whitman’s death, his daughter, Slyvia Beach Whitman (named after Sylvia Beach) took up the mantle of running the bookstore, exactly in the same fashion her father did.
Shakespeare and Company consists of two storeys; the first level serves as a bookstore while the second level serves as a library for anyone, books in the library are considerably rare and not for sale. The library houses an overwhelming variety of books for readers and writers alike to browse at their own leisure, with comfortable seats and writing desks provided for.
57-year-old Hugh Richards, who moved to Paris 20 years ago from England, is a regular customer at Shakespeare and Company. He is very fond of the “cramped little shop that looks more like an obsessed private collection rather than a bookstore”, and mentions that he never fails to find something different every time he visits his favourite bookstore.
“It's interesting to see what hides in the boxes outside and the lopsided shelves inside,” said Richards.
The elegant, worn facade; the atmospheric maze of tiny rooms and cramped stairs; the clutter of typewriters and posters and people staring smartly at the shelves; and the books, of course — books, books everywhere, piles of them on the floor, on the tables, mountains of them climbing up to the ceiling and arching over the door frames, like a cluttered cave of treasures waiting to be found. With its sloping shelves and teetering stacks of books, the cluttered and jumbled bookstore seems like something of a cathedral in its own right, and is a required stop for English-speaking tourists in Paris looking for a piece of treasure to bring home. Who knows what hidden gem one might find in this literary treasure trove.