A stone’s throw away from Notre Dame is the fabulously quaint Shakespeare & Company. Simultaneously a bookshop and a library bearing all the charm of a ramshackle writer’s den, this little literature haven is sure to get your inner bibliophile going! Crooked shelves laden with off the beaten track volumes; kinked ladders to reach the top ledge, gleaming with stacks of musky leather-bound books. It is no wonder then that movie icon Woody Allen chose to feature the rustic pile in last year’s production of Midnight in Paris.
The ground floor serves partly as an English Literature bookshop, stocking books for university students and the like, while the first floor comprises a tea room, a children’s play area and reading rooms, playing host to literary discussions, writers’ meetings and group poetry reading. The view from the tea room takes a stunning sweep of the River Seine and Notre Dame which is idyllically placed on the opposite side of the river bank. In spring, two pink blossom trees thrive outside the antiquated building with old-fashioned stools and benches to while away all those hours reading and absorbing the energy of the books which amass in tiny stalls outside the shop’s forest green exterior.
A narrow winding staircase connects the two floors, not wide enough for more than one person to pass at one time. Post-it notes have been stuck onto every nook and cranny; love notes, not-so-secretive messages and favourite literary quotes filter through the shop’s partitions. Comfy armchairs and beds are offered for impulsive napping, or more long-term residency. George Whitman, the shop’s previous owner, would refer to these overnight operations as “Hotel Tumbleweed”. Books would be placed to one side and improvised beds that double as book displays during the day would be commandeered by writers, artists and musicians. “The first step toward entry” says Kate McBride, “was to show George your manuscript, write a short autobiography and, if he approved, you were in rent-free, in exchange for working the check-out desk, re-shelving books, cleaning and errand-running.” A vintage chess table and ancient piano sit contentedly side by side and a modest writer’s alcove with an old-fashioned typewriter rests diffidently in one corner. The spirit of the place is so fully captured in just one blink of an eyelid that it is impossible to question its on-going prominence in literary history.
The original Shakespeare & Company was opened in Paris in 1919 by American expatriate Sylvia Beach, and was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound to name a few. This former book shop was located in Paris’ 6eme, in an area called Odéon, not far from where I’m living right now. The literary sanctuary was soon nicknamed “Stratford-on Odéon” by Ulysses author James Joyce who created his office within its walls. It is interesting to note too that it was Beach who initially published Joyce’s epic after it had been banned in the UK and USA. The bookshop sadly closed in June 1940 however during the German occupation of France in WWII and never re-opened.
Just over ten years later, George Whitman from the USA opened another English-language bookshop on Paris’s Left Bank and called it Le Mistral. Set up in the site of a 16th-century monastery, Whitman tried to recreate it as a focal point for literary culture in bohemian Paris, much like that of Beach’s. It wasn’t until 1964, after Beach’s death, that Whitman chose to rename it “Shakespeare & Company”, after she left him the legal rights to the shop’s name in her will. When Whitman died in 2011, aged 98, he bestowed the shop to his only daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, who was named in tribute to the former shop’s owner.
The shop remains to this day eclectically cluttered with rows and rows of books set on uneven wooden cases to picturesque effect. What is truly most remarkable however is how the bookshop hasn’t lost any resemblance to a former time.
Watch this space.