Finding a Home in a Bookstore
From the outside, Shakespeare and Company in Paris looks like any other bookstore. There are big windows that display books and you can kind of peer in and see shelves of books. When you walk into the famous bookstore, it’s like stepping into a book lover’s fantasy. There are literally books everywhere. Every wall is a floor to ceiling bookshelf and there is an occasional ladder to help people get to the upper shelves. There are many twists and turns when walking through the store and many people refer to it as a labyrinth, but at every turn, there is not a spot that isn’t covered with books.
This can be seen in the following video that serves as a walk-through of most of the first floor.
When you first walk in the door, you see the check-out counter right in front of you, and you could either go to the right or the left which leads to another room with tables of books. From that room, you could again go right or left into the next room. There isn’t necessarily a direct route for people to take but it makes the most sense to go counterclockwise. There are a lot of twists and turns as well as different rooms that lead into others. Although it looks messy, the books are organized into categories. You can literally find any subject that you are looking for. If you can’t find it on your own, the staff is very friendly and does’t patronize customers or talk down to them.
The following is a floor plan of the first floor of Shakespeare & Co.
- Green icons are images
- Blue icons are book genre sections
- Start at the front door and go counterclockwise
There are a lot of vintage and rare books as well as high-brow. From the first floor, customers are welcome to go upstairs where there are other sections of books including a children’s section. Upstairs there is a reading area. There is even a Sylvia Beach memorial library where people are welcome to take a book off of the shelf and sit and read. However those particular books are not for sale and people are asked to return the books to their proper places when they are done.
The whole store has a very homey feel to it and makes people feel welcome. There is a big difference between the feeling in this bookstore compared to the chain stores. There are no Florissant lights that hurt your eyes. Instead, there is warm lighten and there is even an occasional chandelier. The bookshelves and stairway are made of wood and that also gives it 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 and 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. There is a piano by the staircase on the second floor, and of course it has books piled on top of it. Even the stove has books on top of it. Although there isn’t a large amount of seating, there is an occasional comfy chair where visitors can sit down and flip through a book. There are also beds in certain corners of the bookstore. George Whitman had always welcomed writers (often referred to as “tumbleweeds”) to stay in the store and sleep in any of the thirteen beds. He usually didn’t even require that they pay room and board. Instead, he had them help with in the store for an hour and read a book every day. Books were very important to George just like the character of Mr. Mifflin in Morley’s novel. In the novel, books were necessary on the same level of as food. Books neuter the mind. There are not as many beds now that Sylvia Beach Whitman has taken over the store, but she still welcomes traveling writers to stay and feel at home.
Since the bookstore welcoming and homey to every person who walks through the door, but it also serves as a place where the past seems to come to life. Shakespeare & Company has hosted many famous authors including Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginserg, and many more. Famous authors have walked the same corridors as people now walk and some have even signed a copy or two of their books and put them back on the shelf where someone else could find it. According to Tim Cresswell, “we see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience” (11). If someone has the opportunity to be in the same place where one of their favorite writers stood, they will take it. Shakespeare and Company allows people to give visitors that experience and it can be meaningful in many different ways or just something enjoyable. The bookstore also carries a variety of different books and many of them are second-hand so in a way, each book has its own history. Opening a book is like stepping into the past and readers are reliving the history in the pages. Visitors of the bookstore have the opportunity to appreciate the past and the history preserved in this bookstore, but they are also able to become a part of its history and future themselves.
In the Children’s Section on the second floor of the bookstore, there is a bed surrounded by children’s books where they can sit and read for a little while. Next to the bed, there is a wall full of notices, photos, and scraps of paper with scribbles on them. People from all over the world who have come to the bookstore have left messages on this wall. It is a way for visitors to leave something for something else to find and become a part of the bookstore themselves. Shakespeare & Company has become a tourist attraction and is considered one of Europe’s most popular bookstores.
Some of the most popular books are stamped copies of Ulysses, stamped copies of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame since the store is right across the river from Notre Dame. Many people also visit the store to take a picture in front of the storefront or make a purchase to say they got a book there and also to get a bag with the Shakespeare & Co. stamp.
George Whitman wanted people to have a good experience at Shakespeare and Company and his daughter has followed hislead when she took over the store. The store sucks people in from the busy streets of Paris and allows them to slow down and get lost in the shelves. There is something there for everyone. Just by looking at the atmosphere and the layout of the store, it is clear that George Whitman (and now Sylvia Beach Whitman) wanted people to feel comfortable, find something that they would love, and give them an opportunity to enjoy it. Customers can grab a book off of any of the thousands of shelves and find a chair or go upstairs to the reading room and flip through it or start reading it.The bookstore still stays true to its motto: “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels.” Visiting Shakespeare & Co. is a great experience for anyone.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Morely, Christopher, Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/172/172-h/172-h.htm
S. Sarah. Yelp. http://www.yelp.com/biz/shakespeare-et-company-paris
Braun, Markus Sebastian. “Shakespeare and Company.” Book Shops: Long-established and the Most Fashionable. Salenstein: Braun, 2012. 156. Print.
Images in Floor Plan
A Historian’s Craft. http://idlethink.wordpress.com/2008/01/03/bookporn-25-shakespeare-co-paris/
Reading Addicts. http://readingaddicts.co.uk/reading-resources/bargain-bookshops/france/shakespeare-company-paris/
Winterson, Jeanette. the guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/07/shakespeare-and-company-bookshop-paris
Countless Little Things. http://countlesslittlethings.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/shakespeare-and-company-a-bookworms-utopia/
Just a Lil’ Lost. http://www.justalillost.com/2013/04/guest-post-shakespeare-company/
Shakespeare and Co. (or Books!). http://www.ofrevolt.com/2011_04_01_archive.html