More than a Bookstore from the Start
It takes a certain kind of person to be a true book lover. The connection one feels to words, whether writing, reading or spreading them is dependent on their love of literature. Unfortunately today, the picture of a “book seller” has shifted because of the unbalanced scale of a love of money or a love of books. After doing more research on Shakespeare and Company I am pleased to say that I believe both Sylvia Beach (owner of the original Shakespeare and Company) and George Whitman (owner of the second/still running Shakespeare and Company) are true lovers of the art and importance of writing, reading and of course, books.
Sylvia Beach who was originally from New Jersey, established Shakespeare and Company in November of 1919. It was a lending library as well as a store. It was known as a place for English-speaking writers to go to. Beach’s lover, Adrienne Monnier owned a book shop across the street. The two women dedicated much of their time helping writers find a place to stay. They also aided the writers in establishing their work by sending it to companies. Writers like: Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald all spent time at Beach’s store. Beach had published James Joyce’s book Ulysses in 1922 which was banned in America and England. Joyce often referred to the store as his “office.” The store closed in 1941 II during the German occupation of France in World War II. It did not reopen.
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A street view of today’s location of the original Shakespeare and Company. 8 Rue Dupuytren, Paris, France.
George Whitman seemed to have the same spirit as Sylvia Beach. He opened his store “Le Mistral.” Which translates to mean a strong wind taking place in France. Whitman originally named it this because he liked the idea of all different kinds of people being “blown” into his store, much like this wind. He ran this bookstore much like Beach ran hers. Books were lent out and sold and he offered writers a place to stay. After Sylvia Beach’s death in 1964 Whitman renamed his store in tribute to hers and thus- the second Shakespeare and Company was born. From the start this store was so much more than just a book shop. Since 1951 until today the store’s hours are noon to midnight. There are beds amongst the bookshelves that are open to writers wishing to stay there. It is said that over 50,000 people have stayed in the store. In 2009, Whitman had said the rules have always been “sleep in the shop, on tiny beds hidden among the bookstacks; work for two hours a day helping out with the running of the place; and, crucially, read a book a day, whatever you like, but all the way through, unless maybe it’s War and Peace, in which case you can take two days.” (Winterson.) Whitman apparently read a book a day up until his death in 2011.
As the years went by Shakespeare and Company stayed true to its essence. The first floor of the shop sells more modern literature that was not preowned, and the second floor holds second-hand books. According to a visitor of the shop who met Whitman- it is not uncommon to pull a book from the second floor and see that it has been signed by an established author.
After learning more about George Whitman I am reminded much of Roger from Parnassus on Wheels. Much like Roger, Whitman dedicated his life to books, living with the books and sharing his knowledge. There is a sense of respect for both Whitman and Roger that comes from their dedication to literature.
Whitman had a daughter who naturally, was named Slyvia Beach Whitman- after original Shakespeare and Company’s owner. She grew up amongst these books and her father’s life-style and she lived in the shop until she was seven. After her father’s death in 2011 Slyvia Beach Whitman has taken over the shop. Where she continues to run it like her father did.
Many bookstores today have turned into stores that just care about profit. Having events and selling items that are unrelated to books or what book bring to our lives. Shakespeare and Company does in fact host events but from the beginning it has always been more than just a book shop- and the nature then as it seems to be now is about spreading the love of books and maintaining a community setting for both writers and readers alike.
Wiehardt, Ginny “Profile of Shakespeare and Company” 2006
Winterson, Jeanette “Down and Out in Paris” 2009.
Shakespeare and Company Website