Shakespeare and Company – a Parisian Book Shop

Shakespeare and Company

Shakespeare and Company is an English-language book shop located in the heart of Paris. Since opening in 1951, it’s been a meeting place for anglophone writers and readers, becoming a Left Bank literary institution.

Where the book shop started

American George Whitman founded the bookshop at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Kilometer Zero, where all French roads begin. The building, originally a monastery called La Maison du Mustier, was constructed in the early 17th century. For that reason George liked to pretend he was the sole surviving monk living in the monastery. “In the Middle Ages, each monastery had a frère lampier, a monk whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I’m the frère lampier here now. It’s the modest role I play.”

When the store first opened, it was called Le Mistral. George changed it to the present name in April 1964, on the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. He did this in honor of a bookseller he admired, Sylvia Beach. Sylvia founded the original Shakespeare and Company in 1919. Her store at 12 rue de l’Odéon was a gathering place for the great writers of the time. They included Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound, and many leading French writers.

George Whitman endeavored to carry on Beach’s shop’s spirit, and it quickly became a center for literary life in Paris. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin were among early visitors to the shop.

George’s Philosophy

When George was in his early twenties, during the depression, he went on a “hobo adventure,” as he called it. Although he only had $40 in his pocket he walked, hitchhiked, and rode the rails across the U.S. and Central America. He experienced many acts of generosity on these travels. E.g., when he fell seriously ill in an isolated part of the Yucatan and was found and nursed back to health by a tribe of Mayans. This generosity had a profound effect on him. It inspired his philosophy: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”

Beds were made available among the shop’s shelves and books, so writers, artists, and intellectuals could sleep overnight. These small beds doubled as benches during the day. Since 1951, an estimated 30,000 young and young-at-heart writers and artists have stayed in the bookshop. They included then unknowns such as Alan Sillitoe, Robert Stone, Kate Grenville, Sebastian Barry, Ethan Hawke, Jeet Thayil, Darren Aronfsky, Geoffrey Rush, and David Rakoff. George described these guests as Tumbleweeds, named after the rolling thistles that “drift in and out with the winds of chance.” A sense of community and commune was essential to George. He referred to his shop as a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”

George asked each Tumbleweed to do three things. Firstly read a book a day, then help at the shop for a few hours a day, and finally produce a one-page autobiography. George has collected thousands of these autobiographies. They now form an impressive archive, capturing generations of writers, travellers, and dreamers who have left behind their stories.

The next Generation

In 2002, at the age of twenty-one, Sylvia Whitman, George’s only child, returned to Shakespeare and Company. She wanted to spend time with her father, then eighty-eight years old, in his kingdom of books. In 2006, George officially put Sylvia in charge. He wrote on the store’s shutters: “Each monastery had a frère lampier whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I have been doing this for fifty years. Now it is my daughter’s turn.”

Sylvia introduced several new literary endeavors. E.g. in June 2003, Shakespeare and Company hosted its first literary festival. Participants have included Paul Auster, Will Self, Marjane Satrapi, Jung Chang, Philip Pullman, Hanif Kureishi, Siri Hustvedt, Martin Amis, and Alistair Horne, among many others.

In 2011, with the de Groot Foundation, Shakespeare and Company launched the Paris Literary Prize. It is a novella contest open to unpublished writers from around the world. In recent years, the bookstore’s had cameo appearances in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Shakespeare and Company also continue to host at least one free literary event a week and have been delighted to welcome young and emerging writers along with today’s leading authors. These include Zadie Smith, Lydia Davis, John Berger, Jennifer Egan, Carol Ann Duffy, David Simon, and Edward St. Aubyn.

The shop’s latest projects include a publishing arm and a search for a farm and writers’ retreat in the countryside around Paris.

George Whitman passed away two days after his 98th birthday on December 14, 2011. His novel, which is the bookshop, is still being written by Sylvia and the thousands of people who continue to read, write, and sleep at Shakespeare and Company.

Copyright Shakespeare and Company

Blog Category = The Best Book Shops

cover image for Indistractable

Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention.

You sit down at your desk to work on an important project, but a notification on your phone interrupts you. Later, as you’re about to get back to work, a colleague taps you on the shoulder to chat. At home, screens get in the way of quality time with your family. Another day goes by,

Read More »
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The book about the challenges to humanity posed by the digital future. It’s the first detailed examination of the distinctive form of power called “surveillance capitalism.” And the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control our behavior. The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Shoshana Zuboff provides startling insights

Read More »
Use data to tell a story.

Visualization vs. Storytelling with Data

Visualization vs. Storytelling, with Data. We’re addicted to data. It helps us find golden revenue opportunities. It helps us slash project costs. Whatever path we seek or decisions we are trying to make; we rely on data to get there. But sometimes, instead of hastening decisions, data can hinder them. That’s because those who spend

Read More »
Get A Grip: An Entrepreneurial Fable. Your Journey to grow your business by implementing the Entrepreneurial Operating System.

Entrepreneurial Operating System: Your Journey to Results.

Get A Grip: An Entrepreneurial Fable … Your Journey to Get Real, Get Simple, and Get Results. Use EOS to take your business to the next level. In summary, Eileen Sharp and Vic Hightower were frustrated. Swan Services was in a rut despite years of profitable and predictable growth. Nothing happened to solve Swan’s mounting

Read More »
How I Built This

How I Built This – Unexpected Paths To Success

How I Built This Based on the highly acclaimed NPR podcast, How I Built This with Guy Raz. This book offers priceless insights and inspiration from the world’s top entrepreneurs on starting, launching, and building a successful venture. Great ideas often come from a simple spark. A New Zealand soccer player notices all the surplus

Read More »
Cover of the book called The Lean Startup

The Lean Startup: Creating Radically Successful Businesses

The Lean Startup The movement that is transforming how new products are built and launched. “Every so often, a business book comes along that changes how we think about innovation and entrepreneurship. The Lean Startup has the chops to join this exalted company.” Financial Times. The concepts apply both to designing products and developing a

Read More »
Scroll to Top