The facade of Paris’ most beloved bookstore is an invitation to step back in time. On passing the shops’ jade panelling and vintage signage, many begin to wonder if they’ve taken a wrong turn along the Rue de la Bûcherie and stepped into some forgotten quarter of Paris, somewhere the city of light still holds its honey glow. In fact, they have stumbled upon Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop with the kind of lineage that would make Louis XVI weep. Once the haunt of James Joyce and his contemporaries, the store has a hand in publishing some of the greatest and most adventurous novelists of the 20th century. In the 1950s, it was a hang-out spot for the beat generation, and today it endures as one of Paris’s most important cultural landmarks.
Located on 37 rue de la Bûcherie, the bookstore was founded by an American named George Whitman. The 17th-century building was once home to a monastery known as La Maison du Mustier, the inhabitants of which were just a Cassock’s toss from the Notre Dame cathedral, which lies on the other side of La Seine. Whitman, who had spent his younger years hiking around North and Central America, had a strange habit of pretending he was the monastery’s only surviving monk. To those who stepped inside his bookstore, he was the “frère lampier”, the monk charged with lighting and extinguishing the lamps.
In those days, George’s shop was called Le Mistral, but he changed the name to Shakespeare and Company in April 1964 to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Whitman took the name from a shop once owned by fellow bookseller Sylvia Beach, who founded the original Shakespeare and Company in 1919, at which time Paris was still reeling from the impact of the First World War. Indeed, many of the hopeful young artists and writers who decided to exile themselves to the city in those years were surprised to find that the prices had quadrupled since the beginning of the war. The price of tobacco was 100% higher than in 1914, soap 55 % per cent. The downward spiral of the franc explains why so many American writers – Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, and F.Scott Fitzgerald – wound up on the left bank. The same day the French government announced an increase in the price of bread, the dollar stood at 26.76 francs. With a single dollar, the American in Paris could buy a month’s supply of bread.
Beach’s bookstore on 12 rue de l’Odéon quickly established itself as a meeting place for the ex-pat intellectuals of the day. James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound: all of them found themselves at Shakespeare and Company. Beach even published Joyce’s Ulysses at a time when nobody else had the courage. Taking the name of Sylvia’s iconic store, Whitman attempted to carry the flame of Parisian intellectualism into the post-war era. In the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin all visited the shop.
George, who had experienced great generosity during his travels, never forgot the importance of showing kindness to strangers. He encouraged writers to stay in the bookstore’s cosy digs. Those who accepted the offer were named Tumbleweeds, those travellers who come and go with the wind. In return for a comfortable bed, three things were asked of those staying in Shakespeare and Company: to read a book a day, to help at the shop for a few hours each day, and to write a one-page autobiography. American actor Ethen Hawke is just one of the 30,000 tumbleweeds the store has hosted over the years. The Before Sunset actor stayed in the shop when he arrived in Paris at the age of 16.
George treated Shakespeare and Company as a refuge for the Parisian spirit, an enclave where the city’s rebel spirit might endure. In 1968, Christopher Cook Gilmore, an author who would later tumbleweed in the store, was fleeing a mob of riot police. In the 2003 documentary, Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man, he recalled how George saved him from being battered into a pulp. “I was running for my life. . . . Every shop was closed, and every door was locked, and I was hoping that I could get to the Seine and jump in. . . . [Then] I see this light inside a crazy old bookstore and there’s an old man at the desk; he’s all alone. I run in the door. I’m wearing an American football helmet. I have a scarf across my face…I look at him and say, ‘C.R.S.!’ And he says, ‘Get upstairs!’ He flicks off the lights, shuts the door, and we both run up. We see [the police] run by screaming and pounding the cobblestones…And the old man looks at me, grabs my arm, and says, ‘Isn’t this the greatest moment of your entire life?’ And that’s how I first met George Whitman.”
In 2002, George’s only daughter, Sylvia Whitman, visited her father in his bookstore. The following year, Shakespeare And Company launched its first literary festival, hosting the likes of Philip Pullman, Hanif Kureishi, Siri Hustvedt, Martin Amis and many others. In 2006, Sylvia was made the official owner of the store, and in 2011, the store introduced the Paris Literary Prize, a novella contest open to unpublished authors from all over the world. Today, it continues to host readings from emerging writers and leading authors. George’s story ended in 2011 when he passed away at the age of 98. The story of his beloved bookstore, on the other hand, is still being penned.