Controlled Chaos: The Experience Within Shakespeare and Company


With a place as famous and diverse as 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 passersby cross the threshold for the “feel” of the store. Writers, even, seek refuge in the beds offered in order to use the space as an inspirational springboard. It is, without a doubt, a place with character, and that character is best seen in the visual space of the bookstore itself.

The independent shop is complex and mysterious, with certain realms off-limits to photography and the winding bookshelves hard to map. Therefore, compiling a list of book categories, inventory, or even a basic floor plan is difficult. This is far from a perfect description, but hopefully it at least captures the essence of the store, even if the exact map is off.



In general, the store is a maze of bookshelves. The old walls and wooden units create little boxes and hallways to wander through and explore. Some spaces are small and tight, crammed with literature, while others a slightly more open. But even in the “open” areas, only a few people can fit comfortably. For such a small venue, it seems odd that anyone could get lost within the shelves. But the layout of the store is so haphazard and organic that it feels like the store is constantly changing slightly; the way you came in may not be exactly the same when you leave. Even in photographs, it’s so hard to place where particular pictures were taken. Aside from the iconic green-lighted chandelier and metal well grate in the center of the floor right past the threshold, the rest of the photographs are unable to be accurately placed by someone who has never been there.

The second floor is similar in its arrangement, proving to be just as confusing. But with a bolded sign stating “Please No Photographs Upstairs”, it becomes nearly impossible to map anything. The second floor remains a mystery, with the exception of a small, tarnished piano tucked away in a corner of books.

shakespeare-coAside from the non-visible, part of the problem with mapping the store’s organization is that it is filled to bursting with books. Floor to ceiling bookshelves can’t contain the enormous quantity of texts housed in the old grocery. Piles accumulate on the floor at the base of shelves; tables are set up between shelves to display more stacks of books; there are shelves fit to the curve of the archway; one-book shelves are scattered about the few empty walls. Even the staircase serves as a makeshift shelf, with volumes stacked against the wall, propped up on the supporting slant, and shelves beneath the zig-zagging platform. Chairs, tables, and that piano hide some of the shelving space from view, keeping books hidden from view; because every single inch of space that can hold books is used, regardless of where it is or how easy it is to get to.

It is a kind of controlled chaos. As Walter Benjamin writes, “for what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” (Benjamin, 60) The neatness of Barnes and Noble has no place here, as books are slanted in their shelves, while some volumes rest horizontally atop the vertical-spine rows. It is clearly a place where books are taken and gathered, placed and replaced. Yet among the haphazard stacks, books are cluster together with their fellow copies. Their covers, when placed together, draw the consumer’s eye and serve as a reprieve from the initial overwhelming nature of the store. And in a space with so many books, a more specific form of organization seems nearly impossible. In many ways, I believe a more organized space is unwanted. The organic give-and-take nature and sprawling piles depict the “tumbleweed” atmosphere Whitman encourage more so than anything else.

DSC01184The store does, however, attempts to fabricate a stronger sense of order. Section categories are scribbled on small slips of white paper and taped to the wood of the selves; you need to be right up close in order to read the headings. Occasionally, subjects are displayed on larger signs, like the Drama and Philosophy sections. But their signs are hidden amidst the collections; the faded, hand-painted “DRAMA” on the gold background— tilted vertically and only about the height of a small shelf—is easily glanced over in the sea of colorful spines. For the books near the ceiling, one wonders if you’re even supposed to see those at all. While there are a few ladders sprinkled around the store, they are old and rickety. And some spots, like the books above the archway, seem impossible to get to, even with the assistance of a ladder.

The walls are not just for books, however. In the few empty spaces, bulletin boards display notes, flyers, letters, and photos. Numerous mirrors of all different shapes and sizes are hung on the ends of bookshelves. While they may intend to create the illusion of a more empty space, they also give the passerby a chance to see themselves within the horde of literature and provide a moment’s reflection (literally) on their experience in that moment. A few framed photographs and paintings hang at the very top of the wall in whatever free space is left. Between the mirrors, the books, the boards, and the art, you have to search hard for bare walls. And with so much going on, your eye never ceases to wander around every inch of the store; you will always discover something new with every glance.


Copies of Notre Dame de Paris are sold as quickly as they come in; not a huge surprise given that the store is just across the river from the famous cathedral. Ulysses is another popular purchase, given the original store’s connection to the first publications. Clearly, French literature is also a popular category, both English-translation texts and originals. Shakespeare’s works, given the name of the store, are also top-sellers. Finding these top selections, however, can be challenging.

Despite the popularity of particular volumes, this is by no means a specialized bookstore. Shakespeare and Company caters to all forms of literature, from bilingual to historical to children’s to young adult. The first in Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series sit cover-out next to an academic analysis from Columbia University. Children’s book, literary magazines, and cook books all share the same floor space upstairs. Dance faces Portrait of a Spy. The store will buy anything and sell anything, an inventory that reflects its open-door policy. Their acceptance of any and all books is also an example of Benjamin’s assertion that “the acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone.” (63) Whitman began the bookstore without money in mind, and the growing collection demonstrates their willingness to buy anything which can be read. Shakespeare and Company, overflowing with so many books already, collects for the thrill of collecting and not for the monetary gain.

With all of the books on so many different topics, there is a contradictory sense in the store that this isn’t a place you enter into “looking” for something to buy; again, this is not a place established for the sole purpose of gaining money. Whereas one may storm to Barnes and Noble on a mission for a particular text, Shakespeare and Company is a place to meander and peruse. Entering into the shop with a set title in mind will only heighten the overwhelming experience and create frustration. Instead, the jumbled piles, towering shelves, and secretive categories mix to create an experience based on purposeless searching. One is suppose to enjoy being surrounded and drown in the sea of books, absorbing the atmosphere of literature through smell, touch, sight, and hearing. It is a place renowned for the literary experience, not for the literary business.








Photographs in Post:

Opening photo:

Green chair:


Green Chandelier:


 Photographs in Floorplan:

Photograph in separate hallway:

Well and Green Chandelier:

Staircase from side:

Books on staircase:

Staircase from top:

Panorama in center room:

Store from Threshold:



Braun, Markus Sebastian. “Shakespeare and Company.” Book Shops: Long-established and the Most Fashionable. Salenstein: Braun, 2012. 156. Print. provided the program to insert photographs and tags.


Textual citations


Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking My Library”. Illuminations. Shocken Books: New  York. 59-67. Print.