At Shakespeare and Company, Paris

It’s about time I shared some stuff from my Paris trip. One the destinations on the top of my list was the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore on rue de la Bûcherie in the Latin Quarter. The original store was opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, and is well-known for having published James Joyce’s Ulysses. Unfortunately that store was closed down by the Nazis in 1940, supposedly because Sylvia Beach refused to sell her last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German officer.

In 1951, George Whitman opened another English-language bookstore on the Left Bank. It was initially named Le Mistral, but after Sylvia Beach’s death in 1964, Whitman changed the name to Shakespeare and Company as a tribute. On the top floor of the store is a small library dedicated to Sylvia Beach, where visitors can come to read or write. George Whitman died in December 2011 at age 98. Today his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, continues to run the store in the same manner as her father, allowing young writers to live and work in the shop.

I visited the store on 15 May. One the left (just outside of this shot) is the antique book section of the store. Behind me is the normal store, selling new and second-hand books.  According to the store’s website, it hasn’t been changed much over the decades, as you can see by comparing the store with the postcards showing old photographs of the place. It certainly has the quaint, cosy feel of an old bookstore. The wooden floors and staircase creak, the books are tightly packed from floor to ceiling, and it’s very cramped. In the library you can sit on the leather bench, a worn armchair, or one of the old cinema seats. There are some antique typewriters in the shop, one of which sits on a writing desk in the library, in front of a window overlooking the street. You can put up little notes in the shop, either on a wall in one little room, or inside the tiny, tiny writing cubicle upstairs.

On the day we visited, an American singer and songwriter called Sweet Soubrette did a short performance on ukulele in the library.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a camera good enough to show how pretty this really looked. Besides the beautiful library, there were pretty pink flowers in the window, and the view was of lush green trees and quintessential Parisian buildings.

There weren’t actually any Parisians at the performance, which I guess isn’t that surprising, since the store sells books in English, and it’s as much a tourist attraction as anything else. There are signs asking people not to disturb readers and browsers by taking photos, but there are still people snapping away all the time. You’ll hear lots of American accents too, by virtue of the fact that they’re somehow louder than any other.

I had to buy some books and postcards of course:

Design as Art by Bruno Munari and Ways of Seeing by John Berger are both collections of essays on art. Buying them was a reaction to our visit to Centre Pompidou, a huge modern art gallery. Out of the galleries and museums we visited, the Pompidou was undoubtedly my favourite, but I won’t deny that I was baffled by a lot of what I saw there. Hence the art books. I also wanted a French novel, and Palafox by Eric Chevillard appealed to my taste for weird and wonderful things.

I also bought this cool Shakespeare and Co. book bag:

The picture on the bag is of the entrance to the upstairs library. The writing above the doorway reads “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise”.

We took one more photo, on May 23, when we passed by the shop after dinner on my birthday:

All in all, I thought Paris was an unbelievably beautiful, utterly enchanting city. Two weeks isn’t nearly enough time to experience even a fraction of all the incredible things it has to offer.

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