FOR AS LONG as I have known Paris, I’ve known the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Already, on my first trips to the city in the early-1980s, this old-world bookstore was a Mecca for English speakers passing through the city at a time when little English was spoken there. Tucked away in the shadows of the world-famous Notre Dame Cathedral, and with its weatherworn wooden façade, Shakespeare and Company oozed literary legacy. And its owner and founder George Whitman could still be seen tending to his inventory or quietly reading a choice novel.
Words/images: James Startt
I learned later that the store had been a familiar haunt for authors in the Beat Generation, because the shop was only a couple of streets down from their own Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter. And rumor had it that if Whitman took a liking to you, free bedding was at times offered above the shop. Although it was not clear how such invitations were assigned, it was assumed that they were only available to those who could somehow demonstrate sufficient Bohemian pedigree.
It was a few years later, when I settled in Paris in the 1990s, that I learned that Whitman’s rendition of Shakespeare and Company was not the first. My upstairs neighbor, Gisèle Freund, was close friends with American bookseller and publisher Sylvia Beach, founder of the original shop with the Shakespeare name. Freund, who photographed much of the expatriate literati so central to Paris in the heart of the 20th century, had fond memories of sitting with the likes James Joyce or Virginia Wolff in the prewar bookshop in the nearby Odéon neighborhood. Although the Nazis caused that original Shakespeare and Company to close in 1941, Whitman befriended Beach when he settled in the city after the war and eventually named his own bookshop in honor of the tradition started by Beach.
Whitman called his shop “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” as he successfully created his own world within the walls of his shop. But while free spirits permeated the place, they were united by an unbound love for the written word. Because of its pure originality, it has stood the test of time. Books remain jammed in every nook and cranny. Words are painted on the seats, stairs, mirrors and walls. Even credit cards were unwelcome until a few years ago. And in an age when many independent bookstores struggle to compete with the internet, Shakespeare and Company is actually growing.
Today, the bookshop run by Whitman’s daughter Sylvia (named after Beach) has expanded to include most of the building that houses it on Rue de la Bûcherie. For Whitman—who died in 2011 at age 98—such expansion would be a dream come true. But the genius of Shakespeare and Company today is that, despite its increased size, little has changed.
Bedding in the upstairs is still made available to Tumbleweeds—those lovers of literature passing through the city. Here you can find a constantly updated catalogue of the best English and American literature. And if you look close enough in the stacks, you are guaranteed to come across any number of literary gems. “Ever since George Whitman opened the shop in 1951 it has been evolving,” says Adam Biles, Shakespeare’s events and communications manager. “The original space was just three narrow rooms on the ground floor. George built it up over the decades—he even dreamed of opening a café in the exact same space we have! So the recent developments might be seen as continuing George’s work.”
What’s more, the store is open until 11 p.m. seven days a week. Pay a visit next time you’re in Paris—either to watch the Tour or simply to retrace the steps of literati such as Joyce, Fitzgerald or Hemingway.