A Method to the Madness
From an outside quick glance Shakespeare and Company looks like a typical small old bookshop. Don’t let the small space of the front of the shop fool you. Upon entering the store one will find twists, turns, and hallways all covered from top to bottom with books, that lead you to more rooms coated in books. Shakespeare and Company is like walking into a fantasyland for those who have an adoration for reading. Books on top of chairs, beds that during the day are turned and hold books, books tucked into every nook and cranny of the space. Although this store looks a little chaotic, there is a method to the madness that is Shakespeare and Company.
The owner of Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman, reminds me much of Roger Mifflin from Morrley’s Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. Both men do not view books, or a love of literature as a hobby, or just a part of their being- 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.
Much like Roger Mifflin always living in the space space as his collection, for many years George Whitman lived on the third floor of his shop. He founded the space that is now Shakespeare and Company in 1951. The space was originally a part of Notre Dame, and served as a monastery for monks. For this reason, and that the store is across the street from Notre Dame, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the top selling books of the store. In an interview from 2006 with Sylvia Beach Whitman, George Whitman’s daughter and current owner of the shop, she tells the interviewer that their top selling categories are literary fiction and contemporary fiction. The shop sells books mostly in English but also carry books that are in Russian, Spanish, German, and Italian, most of which are second hand, like many books are in the shop’s second floor. Along with the second hand books in the second floor, the level also houses the children’s section.
In this video you can see the Sylvia Beach Memorial Library on the second floor of the shop.
When George Whitman was asked to describe his store in three words he responded with “bohemian, eccentric, and warm” (His daughter claims those are the words she would have picked to describe her father as well as the shop.) Based on the pictures, videos, and pieces written about the store, I get this same feel of the store. It is so unique, and 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. It is this way because from the start it has been built by someone with such a passion for literature, and writers, and the idea of spreading the knowledge and love books bring. It seems that anyone could enter this shop and feel at home, because there is something for everyone as an individual, yet the store is still bringing everyone together as a community because they are all there due to an interest in books or writing.
More than just this “homey” feeling is the fact that traveling writers can actually stay in the shop temporarily. During the day, books are displayed on these beds, and by night these traveling writers sleep among the book shelves. In return for the hospitality, they must write a short biography about themselves, read a book a day, and help out around the store for a few hours a day.
The placement of the books in the store was quite hard to locate through the internet, and Sylvia Whitman even said in her interview, she thinks her father is the only one who truly knows where everything is. There are no distinct signs telling shoppers were to find certain genres or authors. The small sections of walls that are not covered in books have papers, cut outs, and small decorations on them, this is where you may see a small sign signifying a type of genre. like this one here: The store seems to be set up so customers must truly look around, and survey all areas of the store if they are looking for something specific, if not it is the perfect place to lose yourself in. The organized chaos of Shakespeare and Company is what makes it so unique and brilliant. I’d truly like to experience this beautiful madness myself one day.
The floor plan of the first floor of Shakespeare and Company
the hearts are two of the genre sections that I was able to somewhat locate,
and the blue circles are different images among the placement of the store.
Other images taken from screen shots from youtube videos
Braun, Markus Sebastian. “Shakespeare and Company.” Book Shops: Long-established and the Most Fashionable. Salenstein: Braun, 2012. 156. Print.
Morley, C. Parnassus on Wheels, Melville House, 1917.
Morley, C. The Haunted Bookshop, Melville House, 1919.