Friday, 28 May 2010

Shakespeare and Company

While the book doth live
and we have wits to read
and praise to give
Thou art alive still

Shakespeare and Company:  Is there a more storied bookstore in the world?

If you go to Notre Dame, and what tourist doesn't, it is just across the river on the Left Bank . . . so close to the Seine that a "well-thrown apple core will easily reach river water," says Jeremy Mercer, in Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs.

When I was 21, and visiting Paris for my first grown-up time, I read Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.  In that memoir to his Parisian salad days, Hemingway describes Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company -- the gathering place for the literati of the time.  Beach, an American expatriate, was hosting her version of the Parisian salon -- with a capitalistic twist, aptly.  She became known for her friendships, for her encouragement of writers and for the frequent readings sponsored by the bookstore.  Like her friend Gertrude Stein, she was a lesbian -- and Paris created a space for her to be truly herself.  As Stein said, America is my country and Paris is my hometown.

When mainstream publishers wouldn't touch James Joyce's Ulysses, Sylvia Beach bankrolled its publication.  Although the novel didn't make her any money, it did add luster to the legendary bookstore.  A biography of James Joyce graces one of  the window displays and is one of many reminders of the bookstore's rich history.

The second World War closed the bookstore's doors for a decade, but in 1951 another American, George Whitman, bought some of Beach's book collection and opened a bookstore -- same name, different location -- with her approval.   Whitman kept many of the traditions -- readings, a gathering place for expatriates, the promotion of starving writers -- and then he added to them, just as he kept adding to the bookstore.  Although Beach created a "home" at her bookstore, Whitman actually allowed the writers and wanna-be writers to sleep over.

Jeremy Mercer's memoir is an intriguing glimpse into the life of the bookstore, fifty years after Whitman opened the current location on 37 rue de la Bucherie.  Mercer describes a constant parade of book lovers, camping out amidst the stacks.  It must be one of the most unique youth hostels:  room, and occasional board, in exchange for a few hours of work in the bookstore.  One of the few things that Whitman asks of his residents is that they attempt to read a book a day.

I've often fantasized about living in a bookstore, but I will readily admit that for all its charms, Shakespeare and Company is probably too bohemian for my taste.  As of the year 2000, when Mercer was living in the bookstore, there was no heat and little in the way of facilities or privacy.  (Mercer describes, humorously and horrifyingly, how residents managed to wash themselves and scrounge up meals.)  Although an English poet managed to bunk in the antiquarian room for more than five years, most of the residents are just passing through. 

Whitman started a tradition of having his temporary residents submit their "biographies."   Mercer describes it as "an archive of sociological wonders . . . a vast survey of the great drifters of the past forty years."  I wonder if the best bits will be compiled into a book someday? Although Whitman's daughter now runs the store, a bit of his biography is still posted outside the store -- almost like a manifesto.

Of course, I had to buy some books while I was there.

I looked over the impressive selection of fiction, but in the end I settled for two books about the experience of living in Paris.  True Pleasures, by an Australian writer called Lucinda Holdforth, is a memoir of Parisian women -- not all of them French -- who have been inspired by and associated with the city.  Colette, Josephine and Madame de Staël are here, and so are Nancy Mitford, Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein.  Her themes are intriguing:  "On Grown-Up Women" and "But Women Are Politics . . .".  As Stein said, It's not what Paris gave you but what it didn't take away from you that was important.

I read this book weeks after I left Paris -- when I was sick in bed, in fact -- but it brought Paris flooding back to me.  The author stays in the same area of the Marais that I did, and she visits Shakespeare and Company . . . which brings the journey full-circle in a satisfying way.  But then I have no doubt that all English speaking book lovers eventually find themselves there.

The other book that I bought from Shakespeare and Company was The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham.  Wadham, a British woman just a bit older than me, marries a Parisian and attempts to immerse herself in French family and culture . . . which is a very different thing to just admiring and appreciating the abridged tourist version of things.  It's a strange measure of how long I've lived in England, now, but I felt a strong identification with Wadham's point-of-view. 

In Wadham's view, the French admire the English, while the English tend to despise the French.  On the other hand, the French despise the Americans, who -- in their innocence -- admire the French.  By the way, Wadham also attempts to explain why the French are so rude; although I didn't really find them so.  Indeed, I found it charming how all of the waiters described themselves as "désolée" when they couldn't provide me with a table . . . even though my French accent is atrocious.

There is no frigate like a book, said Emily Dickinson, but at Shakespeare and Company you are more likely to travel by train.  Or are those old cinema seats?

The young American man who rang up my book purchases asked me if I wanted the special stamp in my books . . . I guess it's the Shakespeare and Company passport.


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

A Moveable Feast made me fall in love with Paris. This post helps me remember why.

marja-leena said...

Fascinating post. But ah, this reminds me again that we forgot to find Shakespeare and Co when in Paris a year ago - I am still désolée over it! Especially since we were probably quite close to it at one point. Then again, my suitcase and wallet thanked me :-)

willow said...

Shakespeare and Company is near the top of my bucket list.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Your post made me feel INTENSE JEALOUSY.

But I console myself with the knowledge that we are t minus three years and counting to the fab sabbatical so I can visit S & Co.

And visit you.

That makes me happy. Now I'm off to check out those books. Did I tell you about the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, OR? Google it. We will go there when you get your tuchas out here.

Bee said...

Pamela - as I was writing this, I was thinking that it deserves a re-reading!

Marja-leena - You know, I've been to Paris several times and NEVER managed to make it to the bookstore. I didn't spend as much time there as I wanted to, so I'm already planning my next visit.

Willow - Deservedly!

Fantastic Forrest - Yes, we are straight onto the Eurostar after we explore London and Chawton.

I checked out the Sylvia Beach Hotel and it is the coolest place ever! I think that I might want to go and live there.

Anonymous said...

Wrote you a long, long appreciative response and it got eaten by the comment demons.
Will try again later!

Lucy said...

These last two Paris posts are so effortlessly elegant and erudite!

We passed S and co quite late on a Saturday night, and poked our noses in, enjoying the glow and feel of camaraderie, but felt too absorbed in taking in the city to stop for English books! I didn't know all of its history as you've told it here, quite fascinating.

Plutarch recommended The Secret Life of France a while back, but I've not got round to getting it yet. I'm pondering the who-admires-who-despises-who model, I'm not entirely convinced about it...

Dumdad said...

Evocative post that brings back memories - and I actually live in Paris; well, the banlieue nowadays. I have lived in various parts of Paris including Le Marais, which I love.

I recently re-read A Moveable Feast for the third or fourth time. I haven't been to Shakespeare and Co. for a long time. Perhaps I shall pop in again one of these days.

Marcheline said...

I understand why books and poetry could make someone fancy France, but I can't understand why anyone who has actually been there admires the French. I found them to be nasty, rude, and downright mean.

Give me Scotland every time.

Marcheline said...

Sorry - got so riled up remembering the French that I forgot to say I loved the stories about that book store! While I agree with you that it sounds a bit more bohemian and unclean than I could stand in person, it's very romantic to hear about in retrospect!

Polly said...

I thought I know Paris' secret places but here's one I've never heard about before! And it sounds like a place I can't miss. A real bookshop-museum, I can imagine it's very decadent and postmodernist.

I won't miss it when I'm in Paris in July. I hope they have more copies of the books you described.

Great post!

Barrie said...

This post was fascinating. But it made me a somewhat sad; I'm so stuck in my little town these days. I must re-read A Moveable Feast.

Steve Newman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Newman said...

Lovely piece. The original Shakespeare & Co is now an antique shop of sorts.

Some of you might be interested in reading my piece about Hem and Beach...

julochka said...

you make me want to go to paris, where i've never been and was quite put off by it based on many trips through CDG... :-)

Beth said...

Have you ever considered writing a travel book? The combination of your love of travel, your research abilities, your personal impressions and your writing skills make you a perfect candidate to author such a book. Truly. :)

Dick said...

A great read, Bee, and wonderfully illustrated. Lots of memories flooding back.

Sarah Laurence said...

Next time I’m in Paris, I’m definitely visiting this bookstore. Your descriptions, history and photos give a great sense of place. That’s so funny that employees actually live there. I love that it has a Shakespeare theme too. What a contrast to Amazon and American chain bookstores.

I like Beth’s suggestion about a travel book, except I think you should write a guide to bookstores, libraries and author homes. Wonderful post!

Friko said...

An excellent post, fascinating.
There are special bookshops in many of the great cities of the world - and even some not so great cities - they all have a history of their own worth exploring. There is nothing like the smell, the atmosphere, the very dust of an old fashioned bookshop.

I also admit to having a very soft spot for the ancient shelves of a really great second hand bookshop. Mind you, I could open one of them myself.

A Cuban In London said...

Fascinating post. I think the term bohemian has lost its lustre somehow. I led a monthly session for four and half years with the word 'bohemian' in its name and rewarded with a faithful attendance. But it was not a money-generating enterprise and it was almost shelved by the administration when it changed hands. I persisted and it lasted until the arts organisation folded in 2008. This post reminded of why we need Beach's approach now more than ever.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Fantastic Forrest said...

The link Steve Newman provided to his piece about Hemingway and Beach doesn't work - there's an extra "and" in the URL he provided. Correct address is

Well worth reading!

Star said...

What is it about bookstores that makes us go all gooey? While I'm over here in Tennessee, I like to visit Borders every Saturday afternoon. It is a ritual that I cannot do without. I drink a hazlenut latte and watch the other people drinking their favourites and using their laptop computers. "What are they doing?" I wonder as I sup. I look at all the books to see what's new and always return to my favourite bookshelves. Yesterday's acquisition was Stieg Larsson's third book in the dragon girl trilogy, which has only just come out over here. I read the first two books in England.
Loved your post about France. Love the old shops there and the twisty streets.
Blessings, Star

kristina said...

Such a fascinating post. I'm adding The Secret Life of France to my to-read list (while Paris is, of course, already on my to-visit list!).

K x

A Thousand Clapping Hands said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I actually have, and have read True Pleasures, and really enjoyed it. Just last week I was thinking of re-reading it. I've always been fascinated by this book store. There is a very interesting documentary about it where you get to see it's daily goings on with the people who live(d)there and with the extremely eccentric George Whitman. The scene where he cuts his hair by setting it on fire is memorable! I'm not sure of the title. It was on either Sundance or IFC. I hope you can find it somewhere.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I wanted to dive right into this post. Lovely, Bee.

Kristen In London said...

I admit to being a complete Francophile, while also being a complete Anglophile... I sense you are much the same. Why must people persist in saying the French aren't pleasant or helpful, or hate all Americans. I think to be annoyed with a nationality who don't bother to learn a bit of the local language is a reasonable annoyance. But almost without exception, every French person I have ever EVER met has been lovingly appreciative of my attempts to speak French, and that adds SO much to my love of being there. Thank you for such an evocative post about an iconic spot... I DO think you'd like parts of "Americans in Paris." Much of it is about Shakespeare...

Merisi said...

One fine day, I shall travel to Paris and visit this bookstore, among many other things!

I happened to visit France for the first time this March, I went to Lyon. Even though my "French" is a more Italian than anything else, people of all walks of life were extremely friendly and kind. Where do all these stories with French being unpleasant come from?

The funniest thing to learn was that the French call a cappuccino a cappuccino! That helped a lot. :-)
Another thing I noticed that, at least in Lyon, in the morning there are long lines at ...... Starbucks! All those French having a desire for an American venti latte! Fascinating.

Christina said...

it's as though i held my breath, all the way through this post. that's just how beautiful it is. sigh.