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.