Bookish Spots of Paris: Shakespeare and Company

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shakespeare & Co. was one of the first bookish places I stumbled across in Paris. Here is Hemingway's description of the wonderful place:
On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive.
One of my classes required us to take daily "walks," tours outlined in a guidebook written by the professors of my college's French department. However, the first few days of the study abroad were free, and my roommate Lisa and I found ourselves tagging along with a girl who had a thick guidebook and a good sense of direction. We found ourselves in front of Shakespeare and Co. as the guidebook girl read that Ernest Hemingway had slept here (which, I am pretty sure, isn't actually true. But more about that later). After perusing the book cart of free books in front of the store (mostly gardening books, romance mass market paperbacks, and books about dealing with the stresses of PMS) we slipped inside.

The first floor was essentially a quirky English bookstore, with bookshelves towering with books on all sides. A dilapidated piano rested near a staircase. At the top of the staircase were several rooms filled with beds, desks, decrepit typewriters, walls with post-it notes and Polaroids, benches, and used books. A paper sign requested that we not remove books from the floor or try to purchase them - they were for research purposes only.

In love? Yes sir. The picture below shows me on my first visit to Shakespeare and Co. Behind are some of the reference books, and in front of me an impromptu game of checkers (played with chess pieces) with my roommate Lisa. This room was my favorite room to study in.

I don't honestly remember how many visits I made to Shakespeare & Co. - more than two but fewer than five - but the last visit I made stands out in my mind in particular. It was a rainy day and the end of the semester. As part of our "walking tour" class, we were required to keep a journal of our reflections about the different places we had visited and had a few other little assignments to finish, so we decided to spend the afternoon at Shakespeare & Co. After taking several pictures (such as the Hemingway-bed one below) we all settled down, some of my friends taking naps, some reading, some doing homework. I settled down to write (and noticed the girl next to me was reading an ancient-looking copy of The History of the Bohemian Movement or something along those lines) when I noticed a boy with burgundy Chuck Taylors messing with something. At first I thought it was some kind of vegetable, but then I realized it was a joint. I should mention that I live a pretty sheltered life - I had never seen marijuana before and haven't seen it since. I was kind of blown away by this discovery and started surreptitiously "people-watching" the boy. He looked straight out of a Salinger book - disaffected but intellectual. He left for a moment and returned with a black lab, and took his joint and the dog out for a walk. For some reason that little incident is poignant in my mind, I think just because it seemed like something that would happen in a book.

My fingers cramped up and I was getting bored, so I went downstairs and asked the cashier if I could play the dilapidated piano. She said, "That's what it's there for," so I went for it. I played a little Chopin and Debussy, thus crossing off my bucket list dream of playing Debussy in a crowded cafe in Paris (I consider a bookstore even better than a cafe). I then played the one solitary piece I've ever composed, a little rambling rhapsody that I don't play very often because being praised for it by my family made me more sensitive about playing it in public for some reason. A few tourists stopped and took pictures of me playing, despite the complete lack of a damper pedal and dissonant off-tune chords. When I go back there, I definitely have a date with that piano.

Shakespeare & Co. stands out in my mind as one of my most-loved places in Paris, despite the fact that I never purchased a book there. However, I only recently learned more about its history. My grandma gave me a copy of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway because there was a chapter entitled "Shakespeare & Co." I read the chapter yesterday, only a few pages. Hemingway mentioned that he loved the bookstore because he was short on money and the proprietor, Sylvia Beach, had a lending program that he could pay for. He soon became a frequenter of the place. I found no mention of him sleeping there, although there are definitely beds to sleep on. The location I visited is actually a different store than that visited by Hemingway and his contemporaries. It is a store owned currently by Sylvia Beach Whitman, the daughter of George Whitman, the second owner of Shakespeare & Co. So it has passed through the same lineage as the original, but is in a different location. (Rumor has it the first location closed because Sylvia Beach wouldn't give a German officer occupying Paris a copy of Finnegan's Wake. And why would he want to read Finnegan's Wake??) It is actually in an old monastery - cool fact that I just discovered a moment ago. That location, the current location, was commonly frequented by the Beat generation, writers such as Allen Ginsberg. Regardless of whether the Lost Generation of authors frequented the actual spot where I studied and read, the location holds all the charm of 1930's Paris. It is a must-visit destination for the bookish traveler.

Note: Historical information paraphrased from Wikipedia.


  1. It seems like a great place with a lot of history.

  2. You know, I've never had more than a passing interest in France before. But reading about your bookish discoveries REALLY makes me want to hop on a place and go. Very cool :)

  3. George Whitman was actually a friend of Sylvia's and asked if he could open a second store in a different location. I think I heard that it was called 'Le Mistral' but he changed the name to match the original. Then he named his daughter after her too. I never made it to Paris before George died, to my great sadness. I wrote all about it in a blog post, Why I wish I'd reached Paris sooner, which you might like. I also HIGHLY recommend 'Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs' by Jeremy Mercer - who DID stay at the shop, for over a year - and a documentary called 'Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man', about George and the shop. It's on Google video to watch free.

    Seriously, I'M SO JEALOUS! If it wasn't for my five years of agoraphobia-busting in my late teens/early twenties I like to think I'd have made it there by now, but it hasn't happened yet. I take comfort in the thought that Mercer's book - and George's philosophy - actually played a big part in shaping the choices we made and the atmosphere we've tried to create in opening our own bookshop. What bigger tribute could I make?

    1. That is really good to know -- I always wondered why it was in a different location. And I've actually put Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs on my TBR due to your many posts about it. I'll have to walk the documentary as well. And someday, I want to visit your bookshop!


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