The Mary Poppins Bag of Bookstores: Discovering Your Niche in Shakespeare and Company
The motto of George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company, taken from the words of Yeats, is etched onto an empty wall of the store: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”. This simple motto is something the company has stood by adamantly throughout its years of operation. Even before Whitman’s bookstore, another store by the same name embodied very similar principles. It is because of this philosophy—leaving the doors open to anyone and everyone—that the Shakespeare and Company name has survived and thrived over the past century.
The original Shakespeare and Company was started by author Sylvia Beach in the late 1910s, after she received enough money from her mother to buy out a former laundry. In 1921 she moved the shop to 12 Rue de l’Odéon, where it remained for the duration of its 20-year life. The bookstore acted both as a shop and as a lending library, and was immensely popular with the influx of American immigrants flooding into the city after World War I.
Starting in 1922 Beach branched out into the publishing field with James Joyce’s infamous Ulysses. While the publication of Joyce’s novel wasn’t the best idea for Beach financially, it still started the tradition of Shakespeare and Company being more than JUST a bookstore; it also provides a form of experience, like many successful bookstores do, while supporting community life in as many ways as possible (Miller).
Beach’s store, in line with that, fulfilled three separate roles. Aside from publishing and selling books, this multifaceted enterprise became the center for Anglophone Paris and “a beacon of the Lost Generation of American intellectuals who had escaped intolerance, book-burnings, and prohibition at home” (George Whitman; Unconventional American). That is the experience sold in the store—not only a place open to others who have been rejected by their own kind, but also a place for multiple disciplines to work. It is the beginnings of an atmosphere later adapted by the store’s future owner.
Despite financial troubles and declining health, Beach kept her store opened until 1941. A German official had entered her store that year in search of Finnegan’s Wake, but Beach refused to sell him a copy. The Nazi, angered by this disrespect, threatened to close her shop and send her to an internment camp; she then closed up the shop and hid her entire stock. Unfortunately, she was sent to the camp for six months. In 1944, after her release, Earnest Hemmingway (who had made her acquaintance early on in her career) liberated the store, but it closed shortly after. Beach wouldn’t open another bookstore again.
Yet times in Paris were changing. While Beach was unable to continue the bookselling business, a young man named George Whitman appeared in Paris in 1946. Whitman was an American like Sylvia Beach, born in 1913. After completing journalism studies at Boston University, the young man traveled through North America, completed Latin American studies at Harvard, and spent two years with the Merchant Marine during World War II. Eventually, he found himself on the way to Paris in 1946, following an inexpiable whim.
Originally, Whitman had intended on volunteering for a War Office newspaper in Paris, but by the time he arrived the war effort was winding down. Instead he entered into the Sorbonne, and eventually amassed a collection of books from his studies. For a while, Whitman started a lending library for other G.I.s. who had chosen to stay in Paris after the war. Eventually he decided to make the most of his hobby by turning it into a full-scale occupation. With just ₤200, he purchased a bankrupt grocery on 37 Rue de la Bûcherie in 1951. He named it Le Mistral.
Beach and Whitman were friendly acquaintances during this time. Part of her stock from the old store went to Whitman’s shop, enabling him to expand his collection. The man greatly admired the old bookstore owner, and after her death in 1961 she bequeathed the name of her old store to him. Whitman accepted the “gift”, and renamed the bookstore “Shakespeare and Company” in her honor.
Apart from following Beach’s legacy in name, Whitman’s store also followed the original by being more than just a simple bookstore. Due to the poor economic conditions post-war, money was scarce, especially among students. Instead of purchasing books, many students utilized Whitman’s store as a lending library. The Latin Quarter was still very much the population center for students, and they flocked to Shakespeare and Company for the low-cost literature options. It also became a place of inspiration for new writers.
Whitman entered into the enterprise uninterested in a profit, and allowed the lending-library style of trade to continue. Aside from sympathizing with the struggling writers, he also highly valued the wandering spirits who, like him, were on a vagabond journey around the world. He yearned for a way to support his fellow struggling intellectuals, and decided to set up beds between the bookcases. An impoverished student could come by and be sheltered for free under Whitman’s roof; the only requirement was that the “tumbleweeds”—a nickname for the residents of the store—must help in the store for one hour each day, read one book each day, and at the end of their visit turn in a one-page autobiography with a picture of themselves attached. The store had, within its first decade, become a library and an unconventional hostel, along with fulfilling its purpose as a bookstore.
Yet all of these different roles really come down to Whitman’s desire to offer a safe and homey space for everyone. He wanted this store to do more than just sell books: he wanted to help wandering people like himself, people who may not be able to find a comfortable place otherwise. He strove to keep the doors wide open to all sorts of disciplines and people. Whitman was eagerly supporting the surrounding community in two ways defined by Miller: “[giving] added meaning to the bookselling endeavor…by creating goodwill among the local population…[and] by offering a much-needed public space” (Miller, 122).
While these multiple different facets operated in the store, Shakespeare and Company also became a space transformed and inhabited by the various changing artistic eras. For example, while 12 Rue de l’Odéon was a haven for the Lost Generation, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie became a nest for the Beat generation. In 1953, the Beat authors invaded and captured a nearby hotel—now called the Beat Hotel—and, after discovering the unusual bookstore, became frequent customers. They came to study, research, and write; yet again, the multi-purpose nature of Shakespeare and Company molded itself to host these non-conformists.
When the beat generation had passed, the hippie culture swept through Paris and, as expected, the store shined on through the counter-culture movement. The only hiccup in its journey thus far occurred in 1967 when the store was temporarily closed because Whitman did not hold a foreign businessman’s permit. The eccentric owner was not disheartened, however, and decided to spend his time publishing Paris Magazine. Like his store and like his role model Sylvia Beach, Whitman’s occupational prowess stretches over multiple fields apart from simply bookselling.
Just a year later, in 1968, student riots erupted in Paris. It began when a collection of students met in the Paris University of Nanterre to discuss their dislike of class discrimination in Paris and how the university funds were controlled by the government. Police surrounded the university, asked the participants to leave, and the leaders were brought before the university’s disciplinary board. This only incited further conflicts which lead to the closing of the university. Students then gathered at the Sorbonne, which was also detained by the police. It was then that the national student union and the union of university professors marched towards the Sorbonne. The authorities and the students collided with force, the Sorbonne was captured and held by the police, and soon Paris-wide protests were being held.
While the 5th arrondissement was slowly becoming gentrified, it still remained the educational center of Paris and was thus greatly impacted by the sudden outbreak; after all, the Sorbonne is still a central establishment in the district. But while this event did very little to affect the currently-closed Shakespeare and Company, it still embodied some of the values the store strove to uphold: it was an uprising unspecific to a particular community, based on a popular demand that overcame ethnic, class, and age boundaries. Whitman’s store followed a similar system of values, striving to be a place with wide-open doors for anyone to find their niche in, whether literally—finding their bed for a night in a tight corner—or metaphorically.
The greatest effect this insurrection had on the small bookstore was its reopening. The policies relaxed during the upheaval, allowing Whitman to reopen the store just a year after its closing. Procedures for the store resumed as normal, with tumbleweeds rolling through regularly and the relaxed distribution policies.
With its rich yet brief history and connections to various famous literary figures of the time, Shakespeare and Company slowly but surely became a tourist spot—funny enough, Whitman refused to ever advertise his store because of the trouble it might cause with the police. It was simply a place you stumbled upon or heard about through word-of-mouth, until the Parisian guidebooks started to include it on their must-see lists. Yet this influx of tourism never stopped the bookstore from remaining a multifaceted node in the community (Harvey). While being a hotspot for American expatriates and a great tourist attraction along the Seine, the bookstore still provided beds for tumbleweeds, writing lessons, and a library. The neighborhood is officially gentrified, and the students have since relocated to more affordable neighborhoods, but the essence of Shakespeare and Company remains untouched. It truly was a place for everyone and anyone; wandering sightseers, blossoming writers, and book lovers from all different countries and backgrounds were all equally welcomed into the store. Even the death of the then-98-years-old George Whitman in 2011 was not cause for the bookstore to alter its ways; Whitman’s daughter, fondly named Sylvia Beach Whitman, took control of her father’s store. Its multipurpose nature gave everyone a home and a place, and thus accentuates the ideals of its motto both presently and through the ages.
Images in Dipity Timeline
Sylvia Beach and Store: http://leblog1815.blogspot.com/2011/03/sylvia-beach.html
Whitman and Shakespeare and Company: http://www.theparisblog.com/rip-shakespeare-cos-george-whitman/
Sylvia and George Whitman http://www.oh-i-see.com/blog/2012/12/06/creative-inspiration-in-a-bookstore/
4 people outside Beach’s store: http://www.martinestimuli.com/814/
Whitman and Shakespeare and Company: http://www.yelp.co.uk/biz/shakespeare-et-company-paris?utm_campaign=qype_uk&utm_source=google
Provided by Google Maps
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“George Whitman; Proprietor of the Parisian Cultural Institution Shakespeare and Company.”The Telegraph 27 Dec. 2011: n. pag. Web.
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Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
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