Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Paris Landmark: Shakespeare & Co.

That's George out front of the shop
In Paris, there is a place that two different types of people know. The first type is the tourist, who stumbles on it en route from Notre-Dame to the Luxembourg Gardens. The second is anyone interested in literature and the literary history of Paris. The latter spends hours poking through its two floors of disparate books; the former takes a photo and walks on.
     That place is Shakespeare & Co.

In case you’re not familiar with it, Shakespeare & Co. is a bookshop. Not a book store, a shop. Like something out of Dickens, from its wooden facade to its shelves - everywhere - to its steep and narrow staircase to its labyrinth of tiny rooms, all bulging with books of all sorts. A librarian’s nightmare but a book lover’s dream.
     If you’re short on time, don’t come here for a quick fix. This is true Browser Territory. The books are arranged by sections, but for anything more specific than that, you’re on your own. And as the shop is staffed largely by non-professionals, they may not be of much help. But if there’s something you’re looking for and you can’t find it here... well, let me rephrase that - and it isn’t here somewhere, then you are truly exceptional.

George's credo
      All that may change shortly. And for a very sad reason. Just before Christmas, Shakespeare mourned the death of its founder, George Whitman, after a stroke two months earlier. He had just turned 98.
     George was a legend and people argue over whether he was a benevolent father figure or a temperamental despot. The answer is both, depending on his mood. As Marlise Simons put it in her obit in the New York Times, "For decades Mr. Whitman provided food and makeshift beds to young aspiring novelists or writing nomads, often letting them spend a night, a week, or even months living among the crowded shelves and alcoves." His motto, emblazoned on a wall, was a Biblical passage that George chose rather to attribute to Yeats, one of his favorite poets: "Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise."
     George was once one of those angels in disguise himself. After a year in China as a child when his father was on a teaching sabbatical, after trekking through North America and down to the swamps of Panama, after the Army during World War II stuck in a corner of Greenland, after backpacking across Europe, he finally set down his backpack in Paris in 1948, where he proceeded to create a lending library out of his hotel room. From there, he graduated to a kiosk and finally to this place on the quai of the Seine, just across from Notre-Dame, which must have been a hovel then... and still is now, to some extent, although the current occupants have yuppified the rest of the building into six-digit nosebleed rental property. They were much chagrined, although secretly bemused, by George’s shop and his late-night feasts in which his door was open and people spilled in and out and poetry and prose were read aloud... very aloud sometimes.
One of the beds
among the bookshelves
The narrow, steep stairs
     If you were passing through Paris and you needed a place to crash, George would accommodate you, especially if you were "a writer", a vague description that encompassed just about everything and anything from a term paper to the Great American Novel. You would get a bed, but no bathroom, although there was a toilet somewhere in the labyrinth of rooms, and an occasional sink with cold water. Baths and meals were procured elsewhere; they weren’t part of the deal. But if you needed to capture your ideas, there was (and I believe still is, judging by the BBC’s obit) an old typewriter of the Dashiell Hammett variety that you could hammer on. (There was also a piano to hammer on in one nook or cranny.) And the coins tossed into the wishing well on the ground floor were marked with the sign "Give what you can, take what you need" and signed, simply, "George". In exchange for this, George asked for a few hours of sweeping what floor was still visible and shelving books... which may account for the pandemonium in that area. A good friend’s brother was one such recipient of George’s largesse during his week in Paris. He spoke of it with both a smile and a grimace, which probably aptly sums up George’s effect on people in general.
     The shop itself is the offspring of a previous shop of that name, which was created by Sylvia Beach a few days after the end of World War I. Located off of the Place de l’Odéon, it was in the heart of the literary district and became a hangout for Hemingway and Fitzgerald during their Paris days, as well as for James Joyce and Ezra Pound. It remained open after Paris fell in World War II but was forced to close in 1941, with Beach interned for six months and keeping her books hidden in an apartment. George’s reincarnation of the shop was initially called Le Mistral but renamed in 1964 in honor of Beach’s shop. In fact, George thought so highly of Beach that he named his only child Sylvia. And now it’s this Sylvia who is in charge.
     It’s my understanding that father and daughter had been estranged for most of her lifetime, which is not surprising, given George’s character and the short duration of his marriage to her mother. But they must have patched up their differences and Sylvia has been at the helm for the last decade, more or less, as George’s health declined. This has led to a computerization of the business and a less amateur manning of the counters. She’s even taken on the daunting task of inventorying the titles of every book in the place, which is no mean feat! I wonder if that includes the ones for sale on the sidewalk tables and built-in outdoor shelves that are your first hint of what awaits you inside.
     With this change in skippers, I also wonder if Shakespeare & Co. will change. Will it continue to house passing angels? Will its kindness to aspiring local writers - including myself - continue with their books remaining on the shelves on consignment? Time will tell.
     But I’ll miss George and his capharnaüm chaos. Stepping inside his shop was like literary time travel. I know of no other place like it.

The view from
Shakespeare & Co.
Shakespeare & Co.
37, rue de la Bûcherie
75005 - Paris

e-mail: news@shakespeareandcompany

"We are open every day 10 am - 11 pm
except for Saturday and Sunday when we open at 11 am"


  1. I thought I read that Sylvia -- who lived upstairs -- also died recently. Am I remembering correctly or did I dream this? Loved the posting . . . I've been there!!!!

  2. I lived there for about three weeks during the spring of 1974 -which time in itself was part of my overall stay in Paris from November '72 to August '74. George was cantankerous, irascible, but had a generosity of spirit.
    Mick Penning.

  3. I was a regular customer as a student in the 1980s. Shakespeare being the best spot to buy English language books in those pre-WH Smith days in Paris, and second-hand being a word that student wallets like. I remember George well as a gruff, but friendly, almost avuncular man. Always dispensing unwanted opinions on our purchases, and recommending books of his liking instead. We didn't see always see eye to eye on that point to say the least. But often enough also charging me only one out of three books I carried to his table, or, if it was a cheap paperback, waving me off with the hand: "no charge for that rubbish". I for one liked him a lot.

    1. So did I, Simon. And your description of George is spot on.

  4. Another lovely, engaging post, Sandy - one among dozens. Margie and Edward: Your comments conjure my own shallower memories of semi-tourism at Shakespeare & Co., where I hung out occasionally but never managed to meet anyone, sadly - owner or browser. I guess I wasn't literary enough. There is also a Shakespeare und Co. in Vienna, in the Judengasse area - at least there was, the last time I was there.