Shakespeare and Co. – Where Willy Wonka meets Shakespeare

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I became fascinated with Shakespeare and Co. when I watched the movie Before Sunset in which Julie Delpy got a glimpse of Ethan Hawke at his own book signing at the bookstore. The second day I was in Paris, I went straight to the Rue de Bucherie on the Left Bank, opposite Notre Dame Cathedral, and almost weeped at the sight of Kesey and Ginsberg’s works on the shelves.

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Shakespeare & Company has been a literary institution in Paris since 1951, although its roots lie with bookseller Sylvia Beach in 1919. You might recognize her name; she was close friends with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein during the riotously fun “Roaring Twenties,” or as the French put it, Les Années Folles. If you’ve seen Midnight in Paris, you know exactly what I’m talking about!

The place is inconspicuous on the outside yet has a unique charm that attracts tens of thousands visitors per year. When you walk in, it feels like a literary utopia where Willy Wonka meets Shakespeare. The walls are decorated with signed title pages and tens of thousands of books are causally piled up on the weather-beaten shelves. It’s like entering a time machine which brings you back to the lost generation.

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Soon after George Whitman opened the bookstore, he started housing several writers at a time, either published or aspiring, and these literary vagabonds came to be known as the Tumbleweeds. “Several million persons have walked in our door like tumbleweeds drifting in the wind,” George wrote in his letter from the editor in the second edition of The Paris Magazine, published by the bookshop in 1984, “and then walked out, their innocence lost, as free citizens of the cosmos.” He believed “we’re all homeless wanderers in a way,” and over the years, Shakespeare & Co. has welcomed wandering writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin, Julio Cortázar, Darren Aronofsky, and Dave Eggers.

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This is me in one of my favorite sections – music and film holding a book about one of my favorite directors and screenwriters, Woody;). Photographs are generally prohibited but it was a relatively hidden part of the bookstore.

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Paperbacks line red wooden steps leading upstairs to a “non-commercial” floor: a library in which you could lose yourself, with one rule: books mustn’t leave the premises. Here, as on the ground floor, single mattresses lurk between the shelves, and, in the children’s section, a bunk bed. It’s on these that young authors sleep each night.

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I read one blog post about the bookstore and I am going to end the post with the last paragraph. “As I leave, the western facade of Notre Dame is noisy with tourists. I cross the square, haunted by one of the messages tacked to the mirror. Hand-written by the mother of a 21-year-old bipolar man who killed himself by jumping off Brooklyn Bridge, it read: “I’ve spent the last hour trying to decide if I should end my life. If he could have discovered your bookshop, perhaps he would have survived. I want to thank you for this place and the hope it gives.” Not only does that seem to underline the redemptive power of literature, but also something less tangible: the balm of environment.”

Shakespeare & Company Bookstore

37 rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris
Metro Saint Michel Notre Dame (line 4, RER C and B)
Bus 24 (Stops Notre Dame or Maubert Mutualité) and 47 (Stops Notre Dame or Petit Pont)

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