Shakespeare and Company: A Novel in Three Words

“I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions – just a few old socks and love letters, and my windows overlooking Notre-Dame for all of you to enjoy, and my little rag and bone shop of the heart whose motto is ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.’ I may disappear leaving no forwarding address, but for all you know I may still be walking among you on my vagabond journey around the world.” 

-George Whitman

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You’ve been in Paris for a while now, visiting. Seeing the sites. Your last visit was to the Notre Dame Cathedral but the last meal you had was several hours ago, and you’ve been walking all day. You see there are a few small cafés across the river, so you decide to stop there, rest your feet, and collect yourself after the day. The food is good, the atmosphere is better, and after you’ve paid the bill, you can see that the afternoon has just slipped away, and the streetlights have begun to flicker on as the sun has set. But you’re still not tired, still ready for another adventure before heading back to your hotel. So you take up your bag and start walking down the street, just flowing with the rest of the foot traffic.

Here are some of the sights you may wander past:

 

As you go past another small café and diner, there to your right is a larger section of sidewalk, where there is a set of bookcases set up, their shelves packed with books. There are a few people standing around these bookshelves on the sidewalk, but what pulls your eyes up, is a warm glow emanating from the large windows of the store in front of you. You look up further to see the name of the bookstore.

Shakespeare and Company. 

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No other place in your tour of Paris thus far has seemed as inviting as this store.

Located in the 5th arrondissement, at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, it shares street space with dozens of other small diners and restaurants. Food, books, and conversations go hand in hand, and though food is not allowed to be eaten inside the store, it is the experience of many modern buyers to purchase a book shortly after a meal, or to get a meal in order to take a load off their feet and enjoy their new purchase with something refreshing to eat and satisfying to drink.  Though it is unlikely this arrangement of books to restaurants and vice versa was arranged, their geographical closeness does make for a rather fortuitous relationship.

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To be certain, Shakespeare and Company is a pleasantly unexpected discovery for any who stumble upon it. For those who know of its existence it continues to be an enclave, away from the busy streets of Paris, as a place where one can find a quiet chair or bench, and read, perhaps with a snack. Shakespeare and Company prizes itself as the home of its community of artists, writers, community leaders, and as a place where anyone can stay a night if they are in need of a bed to sleep. But the question remains: have you entered a book store or have you entered a library?

Don’t let the small space of the front of the shop fool you.  Upon entering one will find twists, turns, and hallways all covered from top to bottom with books. Shakespeare and Company is like walking into a fantasyland, for those who have a love of reading. There are books on top of chairs, beds that during the day are turned to hold books, books tucked into every nook and cranny.  Although this store looks a little chaotic, there is a method to the madness that is Shakespeare and Company. It seems to be a place you visit for the experience; plenty of buyers enter into the store, but an equal number of curious onlookers cross the threshold for the “feel” of the store.  It is, without a doubt, a place with character, and that character is best seen in the visual space of the bookstore itself.

Feel free to explore the store by clicking on the icons!
Green Dots– A sampling of the many genre sections
Black Dots– Pictures from inside the shop

The store has a very welcoming feel to it. There is a big difference between the atmosphere of this bookstore compared to that of the chain stores. There are no fluorescent lights that hurt your eyes. Instead, the lighting is soft and warm, with an occasional hanging candelabra. It is a comforting feel. When George Whitman first bought the building, he used the third floor as his living quarters, and the bottom two floors as his business. There are still touches in the store that make it feel like a home.  Just like in Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop, the building serves as a bookstore as well as living space. George Whitman reminds me much of Roger Mifflin from The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels. Both men do not view books, or a love of literature, as simply a hobby–it is their lifestyle and the books end up defining who they are.  Whitman and Mifflin both lived amongst their books, and put their every being into not just the selling of books, but the connection to books. They are a part of the collection itself.

Take a tour of the “Sylvia Beach Library” where you are invited to sit and read for a while!

Notice the sound: the store is quiet. Whispers echo through the shelves as friends quietly converse, but the hushed tones are rare. A certain silence blankets the store which would be rude to disturb. There are no “Quiet please” signs, as you would find in a public library, but it is implied. No music echoes from the walls like in other businesses. Any boisterous conversations or loud noises would be disruptive, prying people away from their introspective study. The sheer number of topics, categories, and books lends itself to the illusion of a library. Books from past and present, old and new mixed together; books that have been passed down through people, eventually arriving at the store to be acquired by someone new; you can find anything and everything in the store. If you take away the cash register, the store becomes a testament to Walt Whitman’s days running a lending library.

The library atmosphere is more than just a feeling, however. Traveling writers who temporarily stay in the shop are required to read  at least a book a day, lending them from the store and then returning them to the shelves when finished. It is actively fulfilling the definitions of a library, seemingly without intending to. The “tumbleweeds”, as Whitman called them endearingly, don’t just read books. By night these traveling writers sleep among the bookshelves.  In return for the hospitality, they must write a short biography about themselves and help out around the store for a few hours a day. There is no time limit on their stay, as long as they fulfill the requirements. For them, the store serves as a wellspring of inspiration.

 

Take a moment and relax as Sylvia Beach Whitman describes the store.

The organized chaos of Shakespeare and Company is what makes it so unique and brilliant. It stands out from the typical picture of a bookstore, or shop in Paris.  What makes it so special is that it is genuine.  The store does not try to be a certain way; it does not morph itself to fit the criteria of “bohemian, eccentric, or warm.” It just is.  From the start, someone has built it with such a passion for literature, writers, and the idea of spreading the knowledge and love that books bring; it was about providing literature to everyone, and not about the monetary value. How else could a bookstore feel so much like a library? You cannot force that connection, and you cannot fabricate the serenity or the silence or even the massive collection. Unlike Laura Miller’s explanation of the planned diversity in chain bookstores in Reluctant Capitalist, the variety here is just something that grows organically as texts collect over time. There is no “deciding” what is and isn’t sold; everything is accepted whenever it comes in. First the collection grows, and then the atmosphere.

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Those library characteristics are what distinguish Shakespeare and Company. They are what make this store so different from other bookstores.  It’s more than just a business, it is a culture in and of itself, splicing consumer culture and borrowing culture into one. It buys and sells while maintaining the illusion of a permanent collection. The culture and feel of a library in conjunction with a thriving business. It’s a magical pairing. And the universality of a library—the feeling that it is a space for anyone and everyone, regardless of taste or wealth or literacymakes Shakespeare and Company so welcoming; anyone could enter this shop and feel at home, because there is something for everyone as an individual. The genteel culture surrounding books, as Miller discusses, disappears in this store. Thus, the community of book-lovers, writers, and artists is suddenly expanded within the Shakespeare and Co. bubble, becoming a clique that everyone can access. Everyone can be a part of the community, a community started in 1922.

Shakespeare & Company on Dipity.

In the Latin Quarter of Paris, an American woman named Sylvia Beach bought a former laundry and transformed it into a bookstore named Shakespeare and Company. The store brought people in with its specialization in modern literature and catering to the growing English-speaking population in Paris. It gave them a space of their own, to relax and commune with one another among the shelves. Beach later moved the bookstore to 12 rue de l’Odéon in order to expand. The second bookstore had two rooms instead of just one.

Shakespeare-and-Company-Hemingway-Sylvia-Beach-Adrienne-MonnierSylvia Beach befriended many of the authors that visited her bookstore and allowed them to stay for as long as they needed. From the start, the hang-out was appreciated by TS Elliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway became close friends with Beach and helped with maintenance from time to time. Reading can be a way of bringing literature to life, and this bookstore took this idea one step further by serving as a meeting place for writers of the Lost Generation to discuss issues and literature and work on their writing. It was a meeting place, like a community center for them to, again, hang out as a group of like-minded expatriates.

When Beach had to close down the store this was not the end. The spirit and magic transferred to another. A young man named George Whitman had come to Paris and, after successfully running a lending library out of his apartment, purchased a bankrupt grocery and turned it into Le Mistral. The name he chose translates to a “strong wind”; he liked the idea of all kinds of people being blown into his bookstore, eventually deriving the name “tumbleweeds” from that original thought. With the dream of the wind blowing customers in, George Whitman didn’t advertise the store. Instead, he relied on word of mouth to get customers. When Sylvia Beach passed away, Whitman, who had become her close friend, renamed the store Shakespeare and Company as tribute to her.

Shakespear&coNot only did he name the store after hers, but he also ran it very similarly to Beach’s original store. Whitman’s store had thirteen beds in nooks of the store where traveling writers could sleep and stay for as long as they would like. The rent?  Helping in the store for two hours each day and reading a book a day. This was a way for Whitman to get the “tumbleweeds” to become a part of the bookstore. Whitman welcomed traveling writers and other literature lovers that were blown into the store. It soon became not only a bookstore, but a place where people could get comfortable and hang out for as long as they would like. Some people took that to heart and even stayed for several nights and slept surrounded by books.

 

6a00d8341c630a53ef012875b87944970c-800wiApproximately 50,000 people have stayed there, and it became a sanctuary for writers and readers alike.  There were many famous writers that stayed there such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and so many more. Shakespeare & Co. was also a place where many writers of the Beat Generation would go, contributing stories, lending books, and staying for a while. All of this history and wonder can be seen by wandering through the store and looking at the shelves. Famous writers have stood where customers today stand, and some have even found books signed by those authors. Whitman’s lending library continued even when the store became a business, and he encouraged books to be lent out and returned by customers. Today, tumbleweeds continue to float in and out; a homemade online archive now has interviews with current tumbleweeds, and photos of autobiographies from the past. They’ve created a library out of their experiences.

4182531861_5714a74161George Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman,eventually took over the store.  With her at the wheel, there was a sudden clash of past and present. It’s not a bad collision, for while Ms. Whitman maintains the authentic and original attitude of Shakespeare and Co., she is bringing in new and exciting changes. Like how a library brings together books from all centuries to be mixed together, the store is mixing new with old in style, activities, and still within their book collection. It is bringing together the past and the present, mashing them together to create a timeless bubble. It’s a place that could exist at any point along France’s timeline, fitting seamlessly in the renaissance, the industrial revolution, or today. The enormous selection, the silence, the give-and-take mentality, the festivals, the live readings: all add to the sphere which protects the store from change. By entering the store, you enter a frozen space, a place that will remain exactly the same after years have passed. And all those changes only add more to the space as a hang-out.

Aside from the mash-up of past and present, this hidden glen of literature is a portal between two worlds: introverted and extroverted. The current culture’s obsession with social media immersion and constant connectedness makes this world an extroverted one. Our lives are constantly under surveillance, observed by others through the masses of technological sources, and we feed our voracious appetites by posting, publishing, and tweeting. Even when away from a computer, cell phones wire us to everyone and everything. It is an extroverted world.

tumblr_luojfvvF461qdo62to1_500But within the walls of Shakespeare and Company, something changes; the culture of the loud, outgoing external world disappears. Silence prevails as patrons swim in the sea of literature,  because for Shakespeare and Company literature is an all-consuming ocean. It is comprised of everything, without exclusion, and consumes customers. It immerses you, so you’re able to swim in an infinite pool of knowledge. The space itself encourages you to not just buy a few texts and leave, but spend the day absorbing, hanging out and relaxing in the sea. George Whitman once said that the title of his store is “a novel in three words.” Thus Shakespeare and Company itself is the embodiment of Whitman’s idea of literature. Since this bookstore houses everything, everything is literature. This mentality has kept it alive and thriving as a store, a library, and a fountain of inspiration.

Shakes2While you’re relaxing, consumed by literature, the space becomes personal, individual. Like in Lewis Buzbee’s bookstores, it is a place to be alone among people, a space apart from the bustling world around it. It is filled with mirrors for not only aesthetic reasons but to provide inward reflection. Magic mirrors, creating the illusion of a bigger space and giving the visitors a moment to look at themselves and within themselves. The guests float around one another, avoiding contact as if the lightest touch would break the illusion. Each personal space is sacred, absorption in one’s self is encouraged. An introverted space in an extroverted world. Libraries do much the same thing. The quiet spaces provide patrons with a moment to remove themselves from the burden of technology and constant surveillance. They are little pockets of introversion. But to find that atmosphere in a store is so rare—consumer culture is all about constant supervision: what you are and aren’t buying, convincing you to buy, or buying as much as possible. To have a business space where you aren’t forced to buy something, or where you can be to yourself and focus on your own literary journey? Therein lies the magic, for a unique space such as this is so rare. It is a place so different from our regular culture, a haven from the outside world.

 

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 Sources

 

Buzbee, Lewis. The Yellow Lighted Bookshop. St. Paul: Greywolf Press. 2006. Print 147-186

Foy, Nathalie. Shakespeare and Company: A Chronology. http://nathaliefoy.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/shakespeare-and-company-a-chronology/

“George and Sylvia from Kilometer Zero.” The Literary Review 22 Sept. 2003: 166-75. Print.

“George Whitman; Proprietor of the Parisian Cultural Institution Shakespeare and Company.”The Telegraph 27 Dec. 2011: n. pag. Web.

“George Whitman; Unconventional American Whose Bookshop Shakespeare & Co was a Paris Landmark and a Shrine to Postwar Left Bank Intellectuals.” The Times21 Dec. 2011, Obituaries sec.: n. pag. Print.

History. “Shakespeare and Company.” http://www.shakespeareandcompany.com/index.php?categories=113:1

Kirch, Claire. “Sylvia Whitman.” Publishers Weekly 8 Dec. 2008: 22. Print.

Latin Quarter. “Wikipedia.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_Quarter,_Paris

Massie, Allan. “More an Anarchic Democracy than a Bookshop; George Whitman Ran Shakespeare and Company as a Haven for Poets and Dreamers.” The Daily Telegraph [London] 16 Dec. 2011, 1st ed., Editorial sec.: 28. Print.

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists, The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Morley, C. Parnassus on Wheels, Melville House, 1917.

Morley, C. The Haunted Bookshop, Melville House, 1919.

Shakespeare & Company. “festivalandco.” festivalandco.com

Shakespeare and Company (bookstore). “Wikipedia.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_and_Company_(bookstore)

Wiehardt, Ginny “Profile of Shakespeare and Company” 2006  http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/thebusinessofwriting/p/shakespeare.htm

Winship, Michael. “”The Tragedy of the Book Industry”? Bookstores and Book Distribution in the United States to 1950.” Studies in Bibliography 58 (2007)145-84.Print.

Winterson, Jeanette “Down and Out in Paris” 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/07/shakespeare-and-company-bookshop-paris

http://www.shakespeareandcompany.com/index.php?categories=113:1

Images

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