I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so when I heard of Shakespeare & Company (a famous bookshop near Notre-Dame, Paris) I was determined to visit.
A fan of Waterstones I am, but eccentric, old, out of the way bookshops (particularly ones requiring a nine hour coach journey to get there) interest me far more. Perhaps it was the romantic within, perhaps it was the guaranteed crêpes – either way, I visited Paris in March this year and found the bookshop far eclipsed anything I could ever have imagined.
Shakespeare & Company is a utopia for book lovers and about as bohemian as it gets. The short hour I spent there was jam-packed with likeminded tourists, shop assistants yammering away in both English and French, an enormous white cat free to roam about upstairs, a piano player and a room full of typewriters. For a pretty small place, Shakespeare and Co is bursting with chaos, colour and life. It has been since 1951, when it was opened by George Whitman, a man of legend amongst booksellers. George fashioned Shakespeare & Co into a home for travellers, writers and vagabonds alike; his guests found hospitality as long as they loved literature.
The bookshop that stands today is not first in its bloodline – the original was opened by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, but was forced to close during the occupation of France in the 1940s. The very first Shakespeare & Co was a haven for 1920s household names – if you know your writers. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Ezra Pound are among those names who touched down there.
True to tradition, George Whitman invited writers into his shop with warmth. Shakespeare & Co as we know it has been graced by many post-war writers, including William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. Whilst alive, George said that up to 40,000 people had graced the 13 beds in the store over the years. The beds are always my first port of call when describing Shakespeare and Co (“I want to live in a bookshop in Paris and sleep amongst the books!”) but what I’m most drawn to is the originality of it all.
Shakespeare & Co feels like a portal to an older world, where things were a bit more relaxed and a bit less about money. That’s simplifying it – but where else are there regular tea parties, where else does Jimmy Page do readings from his new biography, where else can I get a canvas bag with a stamping of Shakespeare on it? (Amazon, probably)
As cheddar as it sounds, bookshops are for obvious reasons very homely to book lovers. Shakespeare & Co was very welcoming, even in the torrential March rain, stuffed to the brim with millions of soggy people, in a time when we’re not really allowed to even eat in bookstores. Try going into Waterstones with a doughnut.
That’s not to dispute the beauty that big book chains have, especially when we compare them to the stark impersonality of ordering your paperbacks online, but unfortunately they pale in comparison next to the beautiful bold bookshop in which I one day hope to live.
If you want to find out more about Shakespeare & Company, visit their website at www.shakespeareandcompany.com.
IMAGE: Author's own. Self standing awkwardly outside in pre-monsoon weather.