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Battle of the Bookshops: Shakespeare & Company in Paris

24th Sep 2010

Shakespeare and Co Bookshop in Paris

Shakespeare and Company is easily the most beautiful bookshop I’ve ever been in (and trust me, I’ve frequented more than my fair share). First of all, even before you wander, enraptured, between its doors, it’s setting is picturesque and postcard-perfect. Located on the Left Bank of the Seine, in a former monastery, you can sit in the sunshine in the nearby gardens and have an enviable view of Paris’ most iconic landmarks, from the Eiffel Tower to the nearby Notre Dame and Île de la Cité, while you swoon over your latest literary acquisitions.

Then there’s its hallowed place in literary lore and more modern pop culture. In its previous incarnation on the rue de l’Odéon, during the years it was owned and run by Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Co was regularly frequented by literary luminaries such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. A hub of creativity and Anglo-American culture, the bookshop was renowned as a place patrons could buy or borrow banned or controversial books such as Lolita or Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Although Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co closed its doors during the occupation of France in 1941, George Whitman‘s incarnation set up shop in its current home on the Left Bank in 1951. A shabby, romantic and bohemian place with books piled haphazardly on every surface and all sorts of unique touches such as a wishing well and painted quotes and slogans on the shelves and stone steps, George Whitman has often described it as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”

He has explained how he ending up running Shakespeare and Company by saying:

Like many of my compatriots I am something of a tumbleweed drifting in the wind. I drifted into bookselling for no better reason than a passion for books except for the classical reason of all booksellers who are self-employed because they doubt if anyone else would employ them.

His idea of people as ‘tumbleweeds’ is one which led him to open up the rooms above the shop and install sleeping facilities. Writers, students, bohemians and travellers can exchange working in the shop for a few hours a day for accommodation, in keeping with the motto “be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise,” which can be found all over the website and painted on the shop shutters. Some only stay a night, one poet stayed for seven years. And since when the custom first started, the French police required an official register of each guest’s name and date of birth, George took this at the starting point for the ‘tumbleweed biographies,’ asking any overnight guest at the shop to provide a one-page story of their life.

George Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, has now taken over the day-to-day bookshop business, and in 2008 she started FestivalandCo, a biennial literary festival centred around the shop, with the 2008 event featuring authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Paul Auster.

In addition, earlier this year, Sylvia resurrected The Paris Magazine. Originally founded and edited by George Whitman in 1967 with the first issue featuring trailblazers such as Marguerite Duras, Jean-Paul Sartre and Allen Ginsberg, the magazine was intended as a quarterly, but only three issues were ever published, with long intervals between them. The long-awaited fourth edition was published by Shakespeare and Company in June 2010, with contributors including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Irène Némirovsky and Fatima Ahmed.

Although now retired, George Whitman continues to be familiar face at Shakespeare and Co, hosting a weekly Sunday tea at the shop, and often attending other events there such as the regular poetry readings and writers’ meetings. And every time I’m in Paris, you’ll find me there too, making a nuisance of myself like a mischievous stray dog, luxuriating in Shakespeare and Company’s literary history, influence and legacy.

Post by Jane Bradley

(Image via Shadowgate’s Flickr photostream)

Comments

  • Yet another reason why I need to visit Paris again! Fab post.

  • Marcie Hollington says:

    Who actually wrote the words “Be not inhospitable to Strangers lest they be angels in disguise”?

    I know it’s based on a passage from Hebrews 13.2 and I know it’s the motto of the Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Co.

    I’ve seen references to it being a quote from Walt Whitman but I can’t find it in any of his poems.

    Can anyone help please?

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment Marcie, we’ll tweet your question and see if anyone can help you! As far as I understand it, it was a motto George Whitman often used in interviews to explain their practice of taking in travellers and other ‘tumbleweeds’, but I’m not sure where it came from originally!