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Shakespeare & Company in Paris


Although Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore is no longer on Rue de l’Odeon at its original location from the 1920s, the bookstore has really picked up the literary torch. The reincarnation is still on the Left Bank directly across from Notre Dame. It’s a reincarnation of the original store started by Sylvia Beach, an American with a passion for free thinking and writing. Her store then was famous as a meeting place for Paris’ expatriate literary elite. Ernest Hemingway, who then couldn’t afford to buy anything there, borrowed books from it regularly. James Joyce struggled to find a publisher for Ulysses—until Sylvia Beach published it. George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound also got their English fix at her shop.

Today, the bookstore carries on that literary tradition. This store on Rue de la Bucherie was founded in 1951 by the grandson of American poet Walt Whitman. Struggling writers are given free accommodations in tiny rooms with views of Notre Dame. The upstairs has a few seats, two cots, antique typewriters, and the residence cat perching cozily on a sofa. I make frequent trips to visit the cat and sit with him for a while while reading a book. Used and new books are all downstairs. There’s a green water fountain in front of the bookstore, one of the many in Paris donated by the English philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace. The hooks below the caryatids once hel metal mugsfor drinking the water.

Bouquinistes et livres à Paris

Sunday in Paris means crowds (not that it’s not crowded during the weeks). Popular sights and attractions are out of the question, let alone venturing into Musée d’Orsay, which I save for Monday, when the forecast calls for heavy rain. An attempt to walk through Statue of Voltaire, Oscar Wilde’s Hotel, and St. Germain-des-Prés is aborted. A few random turns bring me back on the quai along the Seine, where I am surprised by bouquinistes (book stalls) that sell books in the French language. They are all over quai de la Seine. Bookstores are livres in French.

The Latin Quarter is bisected by the Boulevard St. Germain and the Boulevard St. Michel. These are the two main arteries running through the area, with the hundreds of crooked streets leading off them like capillaries. In spite of its indisputable gentrification and the loss of its former identity, the myriad streets surrounding what was the left bank’s true student and intellectual center continues to attract tourists and Parisians who hope to discover, or possibly resurrect, a little of that electric sense of change we read of in Camus, Sartre and Beckett.

With the help of locals, I found 29 rue de la Parcheminerie, where Abbey Bookshop—Paris’ first English/French Canadian bookstore—is located. After entering, I was stunned at how many books manage to fit into such a small bookstore, only to find out that the bookstore itself is actually not that small at all. It has several rooms and even a basement full of second hand and new books. The collection, which consists of both used and new books, covers literature, arts via philosophy and history to travel guides and books on francophone countries.

After a long visit at the Abbey, heading back toward the river, I looped around the back of the Cluny Museum and explored the small streets which have now been inundated by Tunisian kebab shops and Greek restaurants. Eventually I run into the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore at 37 rue de la Bucherie. This is truly a sight not to miss—for book lovers and tourists. Of all the English language bookstores in Paris, this one has the most interesting feel, not to mention a rich literary and cultural history. The shop is a remake of the original bookstore which was damaged by fire. Founded by Sylvia Beach in the 1920’s, Shakespeare & Co. became a focal point for expatriate Americans such as Pound, Hemmingway and the Irishman James Joyce. It was actually Sylvia Beach who finally agreed to publish Joyce’s much-rejected novel, Ulysses. The shop was later taken over by George Whitman who is an iconic figure in the American ex-pat community. He is now is his 90’s and the shop is run by his stunning daughter, whom I spoke to. The bookstore continues to offer refuge to young writers and poets who are allowed to sleep in the shop in exchange for some hours work. If this seems strange, I think it should be commended as a remarkable act of generosity and empathy in an age when things like this no longer happen.

The architecture of the shop is interesting— a maze of leaning shelves, secret cubbyholes, piles of books, old sofas, posters and the occasional cat. This is a place to be preserved and admired along with those who keep it running. No wonder Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian crime reporter who worked here, called his “time was soft here” in his memoir. Collection-wise, Shakespeare & Co. probably has the best selection of arts, literature, history, and philosophy in the English language in Paris. They manage to keep the offerings up-to-date compared to the bookstores back home. I ended up buying a few books here as a gesture to help support this little enclave of culture. The benches and fountain outside the shop are also a wonderful place to sit and watch the Notre Dame across the river. I indeed spent the afternoon there reading what remains of The Fountainhead.

Pictures (from top): 1. Bookstall quai de Seine 2. Abbey Bookshop 3-4. Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore

Books on Books, Gearing for Read-A-Thon

Eva’s post reminds me of a book that has been sitting around for so long that I have yet got to it: Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee. It’s a memoir, a book on the love for book and bookstores. I remembered buying a few copies of the hardbacks and gave them to friends as gifts when it was first released. It’s not a chunkster of a book–a little bit shy of 200 pages–but describes the thrill of his bookstore experience most bibliophiles would share. How he walks into a bookshop and feasts his eyes on the walls lined with stock, and gravitate to the tables and racks stacked with new and notable books. Woven into these personal essays is a tangential discourse on the history of bookmaking and book-selling, from the ancient Romans and Chinese to the modern era. I’m saving this one for the upcoming 24-hours read-a-thon.

Along the same tangent with Buzbee is Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer. Mercer, a former Ottowa Citizen crime reporter, finds himself at Shakespeare one gloomy Parisian day in 1999, in his late 20s, with not much money and no plans for the future, trying to evade some angry newspaper sources back home. With little fanfare, he is taken into the store by its owner, George Whitman, a kindly yet scatterbrained man, and begins working as an eager unpaid employee, running errands, acting as a referee between the writers who hang out there and ringing up sales. I have seen this one a while ago but have forgotten about it, glad I’ve found it again at Books Inc., which features the book on the wall. Another choice selection for the read-a-thon.

During my a-bookstore-a-day visit (where I usually have to fight the temptation of buying a book everyday), a book cover caught my eye. The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley is about the predicament faced by Kate Flynn, a brainy and forbidding beauty with delicate bones, “Nefertiti eyes” and a mean tongue, who has quit her professor’s job in London and returned to her grand but crumbling childhood home in Wales to care for her 83-year-old, increasingly forgetful mother. The boy next door, son of a friend, begins to hang around the house–he has a crush on the 43-year-old professor. I decided to get the book at the revelation of Hadley’s observations of the ebb and flow of female desire and frustration, which are reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, but she taps sensual undercurrents where Woolf wouldn’t have dipped her toe. Has anyone heard of this book?