“I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.” George Whitman
That mustard yellow sign, sage green door, and Shakespeare picture welcomed me like an old friend. In the quiet of an early September morning, an autumn breeze rustled the leaves of the tree and the heady aroma of a café crème wafted in the air. Across the Seine stood Notre Dame, that towering, buttressed cathedral, exuding grace and majesty. But on this side of the Left Bank, this bookshop had a sacredness of its own.
I had made pilgrimages to Shakespeare and Company many times before, as a hungry graduate student, as a study abroad professor, as a burgeoning writer, all as a way to connect to the spirit of English literature that had loomed over this legendary space.
Sylvia Beach opened the first shop at 12 Rue de l’Odeon in 1919 exactly 100 years ago. It became a lending library and communal space for Lost Generation writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Eliot. Her daring publication of James Joyce’s banned book Ulysses won the shop international acclaim.
George Whitman then opened his bookstore Le Mistral at 37 Rue de La Bucherie in 1951 and in 1964 renamed it Shakespeare and Company in honor of Sylvia Beach. These walls had seen the likes of James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Langston Hughes and a whole cadre of Beat writers.
For a book lover, Shakespeare and Company was like walking on literary holy ground.
Entering the doorway, I nearly genuflected out of reverence. The musty room was cluttered with wall-to-wall books, shadowed with timber ceilings, and thick with lettered history. I was lucky enough to be there for a writing workshop and a lecture before the shop officially opened. This rare chance to experience the space in the still quiet of an early morning felt like being in church. I half expected to light a candle and hear a hymn.
One of the workshop faculty shared some history about the store and told us about her time there as a tumbleweed, the affectionate term used to describe writers who stayed the night.
“I was a starving photographer and needed a place to stay, so George said that I could sleep in an upstairs bed if I worked for a couple of hours in the store, read a book a day, and typed up a short bio.”
She showed us the paragraph that was now published in the 2016 book Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. While we were wide-eyed with admiration for such a romantic adventure, she also warned us of the bedbug bites she suffered.
“Sleep on top of the covers,” she admonished.
We moved through the labyrinth of cramped rooms, past the piles of books, past the rusty typewriter, past the quote, “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” The deeper into this cavernous maze we went, the more I found new rooms I had not seen before. A doorway in the back led to a music room, that led to the antique book room, that led to an office. Magically, this place kept growing not up or out but inward, like plunging into the pages of a good book.
The narrow staircase squeezed us up to the library where we assembled for a lecture from a historian and journalist about the fire in Notre Dame. I sat on the well-worn bench and memories came flooding back. A poetry reading with my students on a rainy Tuesday night. An old photograph of me in the corner, pensively reading a book. A purr of a curled up cat sleeping in the window sill. It was like the room held history, held my stories, held the stories of all who had been there.
I imagined George Whitman cutting his hair by burning it with a candle. I imagined Allen Ginsberg reading his poem “Howl” completely naked. I imagined Sylvia, George Whitman’s daughter, playing with their dog. I imagined the fire that erupted and the smell of burning books.
Time seemed to collapse and all these events were still happening in this room, still alive and animated.
The lecture on Notre Dame commenced with an enlightening history of the building, how it had been damaged, neglected, and transformed over and over through the centuries. We learned about the detailed description of the fire, the massive destruction, and the city’s mournful reaction. We heard about the multiple proposals to rebuild the spire and rooftop, what modern materials might be better, stronger, more resilient and even reflect a more conscious generation. In the midst of tragedy, we felt hopeful for its future.
I couldn’t help but feel a similar hopefulness for Shakespeare and Company. Over the last 100 years, this space had also seen its share of hard times – wars, debt, fire, closure. With every change of stewardship, the form of the place slightly changed. Sylvia Beach and George Whitman were both now gone, and Sylvia Whitman altered some of the structure – organizing the books, adding a café, and expanding the online offerings. But looking around the room, I realized that the spirit of independence and veneration of literature lived on in the walls.
As I gazed at the timeless timbered beams, a round of applause for the lecture startled me back to the present. Our time was up, the store was opening, and we could hear a new day of readers flooding into the bookstore. I collected my thoughts and my things and meandered back outside to the now busy courtyard filled with young students leafing through books and bustling to the entryway, opening the door the way they open a book.
I looked back at the building that held so many stories, and read the words framing the Shakespeare picture.
“Thou art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.”
Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart by Krista Halverson 2016
Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties 1983 by Noel Riley Fitch
Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach 1959
The Time was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co. by Jeremy Mercer 2005
The Letters of Sylvia Beach edited by Keri Walsh