|That's George out front of the shop|
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 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|
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.
37, rue de la Bûcherie
75005 - Paris
"We are open every day 10 am - 11 pm
except for Saturday and Sunday when we open at 11 am"