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.
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.
Blog Category = The Best Book Shops