Is there a magical place that you have always wanted to visit; one that takes on an increasingly more luminous quality the longer it lives in your imagination? The Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, France was one of those places for me. I vowed that if I ever made it to the City of Light, I would head straight there.
I knew it was in a near-perfect location – on the Left Bank of the Seine in the shadow of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral. I also knew it was established in the early 1950’s by an eccentric bookman named George Whitman who let young writers stay upstairs for free and created a home-away-from-home for many literary greats.
Recently my dream came true. My husband and I took our first trip to Paris. We rented an apartment in Montmartre and explored the city using the Métro. Early on in our visit, Métro and Paris maps in hand, we made the pilgrimage to Shakespeare and Company.
As we neared 37 rue de la Bûcherie, the dark green and yellow façade of the store materialized. I reached for the brass door handle, opened the door and literally floated inside. Shakespeare and Company’s magical world began to reveal itself. I found myself surrounded by books, floor-to-ceiling, clustered on shelves and stuffed into crannies. I passed the famous wishing well and eased my way towards the poetry section which was housed in its own little room, a space that became very cozy when just one other person joined me.
I then headed up the winding staircase to visit the Sylvia Beach Memorial Library. The books in the library are not for sale but visitors are invited to curl up in the comfy chairs and read them. Sylvia operated the original original Shakespeare and Company bookstore located at 12 rue de l’Odéon in Paris from 1919 to 1941. Her memorial library houses an old, slightly out-of-tune piano and on the day I visited a young man sat there playing a beautiful piece of classical music.
Another feature of the second floor is the writing booth which anyone who loves to write can use. Festooned with white Christmas lights, it includes a desk, chair and sturdy table top. A selection of ancient typewriters is stored on a shelf above the booth. A sign in French asks those who wish to use the booth to respect both the space and the typewriters. While I didn’t have time to stay and write, I do admit that I crouched down and slipped into the booth. I sat there and just breathed slowly, soaking up the energy of all the writers who had written there before. I thought if I listened hard enough I might hear the “tap, tap, tap” of all those keystrokes….
At the store, I bought the book Shakespeare and Company: A Brief History of a Parisian Bookstore written by George Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman (named after Sylvia Beach). It contains a history of both her father’s life and the bookstore, along with a wonderful selection of photos from the store’s archives. To learn more about the bookstore and the workshops and events that are offered there, visit the Shakespeare and Company website by clicking here.
Over the decades, many famous authors have passed through the doors of Shakespeare and Company. The bookstore’s website mentions that this has has included Henry Miller,Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Allen Ginsberg. There has also been a long-standing tradition of hosting a weekly literary event. I was sorry to miss British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy who was being featured the week following my departure.
George Whitman died at the age of 98 in December 2011 and his daughter Sylvia continues to run the business. While I didn’t get to meet George, his spirit is certainly alive and well in this store he built with his heart and soul. From the moment I reached for the brass door handle and stepped into the magical world of Shakespeare and Company, I felt as though I was walking through George Whitman’s imagination. If you find yourself in Paris, I suggest that you pay a visit.
We also visited two other English language bookstores. Abbey Books is located at 29 rue de la Parcheminerie in a building that dates back to the 1730’s. Owner Brian Spence (who hails from Toronto, Canada) wasn’t there the day we visited, but the young woman minding the shop welcomed us, and offered us coffee as we browsed. We learned that the store stocks 35,000 titles. It’s definitely worth a visit.
The other bookstore we visited was the San Francisco Book Co. at 17 rue Monsieur le Prince. The owner has a wonderfully bizarre sense of humour and we had a great chat with him as a stream of regular customers came in.
I love to support independent bookstores and feel distraught when I hear of new closures. Before leaving for Paris we learned of two English language bookstores that had recently closed: Tea and Tattered Pages and The Village Voice. We only learned of a third, The Red Wheelbarrow in the Marais area, as we approached the bright red façade only to find an empty storefront and a “for lease” sign in the window.
I hope that if you visit Paris you’ll check out the English language bookstores I’ve mentioned, and if you read French, the more than 200 French language bookstores that dot the city. Happy travelling and happy reading!
Until next time,
If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, why not subscribe to our blog? Just enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top right hand corner of this page.
Treat yourself to a day away just to write. Join us for a rejuvenating day of writing, yoga, good food and distraction-free time to write. Our June 23 retreat is the last one we’ll be offering until autumn.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS AND DRAWING IN THIS POST ARE BY JANIS MCCALLEN.