In the footsteps of literary giants I crossed the threshold of Shakespeare & Co and entered the world of famous writers and their books. A dream of mine come true in Paris…
Childhood memories and books blend together in my mind. As a child some of my best memories revolve around books. My sister and I were avid readers, it could have been because as children we never had a television set until I was 13 years old, or maybe it was because books were our silent companions during the many happy church lectures and functions we attended as a family. Or, it may have been that our mother and father read aloud to us each, and every night, until we could fluently read ourselves. What a precious gift our parents gave to us; the love of books and the joy of reading!
I have wonderful memories of searching the shelves and piles of books with my mother and sister in our local second hand book shop in Blackwood, South Australia. We always went home with books from this store, the local library, the newsagent (who stocked Trixie Belden, Famous Five, Noddy, Secret Seven, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) and the bookstore near the roundabout! I can still picture our bedrooms and my dad’s study overflowing with bookcases and books.
Not much has really changed from when I was a young girl. I still love books and still have more books than fit in my house. We have extra boxes of books in our boat shed and storage unit and still continue to buy more. What can I say! I gravitate to bookstores wherever I am in the world and usually bring home more books than I can comfortably manage in my suitcase. Some of my favourite stores are Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus, London and in Oxford (opposite the Bodleian Library); Kinokuniya Bookshop and Abbey Bookstore, both in Sydney; Archives Fine Books in Brisbane and now Shakespeare & Company in Paris.
Are you a history buff, do you want to know the history of this famous Parisian store? Well, here you go! Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookshop in the heart of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, opposite Notre-Dame. Since opening in 1951, it’s been a meeting place for anglophone writers and readers, becoming a Left Bank literary institution. ‘The original Shakespeare and Company, located at 12 rue de l’Odéon, which doubled as a library, publisher and boarding house for aspiring writers, was opened by American Sylvia Beach in 1919 and was featured in Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. The store closed during World War II, and was reopened in its current form in 1951 by George Whitman, whose daughter, Sylvia (named after Beach), runs the store now.’
When the current store first opened, it was called Le Mistral but George Whitman changed it to its present name in April 1964 (on the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth), in honor of Beach. Even though the current store is not the original gathering place for the great expat writers of the early century —Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Pound, it still has its own history and mystic. Out the front, bookstands surround an ornate drinking fountain, erected in the 19th century to service the area’s poor with fresh water. I love this idea of providing fresh drinking water to those who could not afford it.
The store is divided between two buildings, one with new publications, library and tiny museum; and the other (The Antiquarian) with secondhand and antique books. If you can’t wait to read your new purchase then head next door to the Shakespeare and Company cafe, grab a coffee and start reading straight away!
The quaint main store pays homage to writers and literature with cosy reading nooks, an intimate atmosphere and a wonderful writer’s study recreated on the upper floor.
You can feel the love that the store owners and staff have for books, writers and literature in general. The store runs poetry readings; book launches; author signings; children’s storytelling and musical events. Check out the current events held at Shakespeare and Company.
I really recommend going up the tight staircase to the upper floor to see the study re-creation, mini museum and to check out the unique view of the Ile de Cite through the upper window.
Another delight is when you purchase a book from this store they stamp the inside cover with the genuine bookstore stamp, pop a bookmark in your book and place the book in a paper bag bearing the quote ‘Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read’. Groucho Marx. I love this quirky saying.
‘Perhaps more unusual, however, are the makeshift beds tucked between some of the shelves. For Whitman, an eccentric ex-serviceman who travelled around the world before deciding to settle in Paris, didn’t simply own a bookstore. What he created was, in own words, a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop”: a bohemian refuge where down and out, mostly expatriate writers could mingle, write, and even bed down for the night – all in exchange for a few hours’ work in the shop, and on the strict understanding that they read a book every single day.’ From the article Turning the Page at Shakespeare and Company by Leah Hyslop
Sylvia Beach continues to offer writers a bed to sleep for the night, but has set a limit of six writers sleeping at any one time.
I suggest completing this wonderful experience by purchasing a book and getting it stamped. What a fabulous souvenir! The only difficulty you’ll have is making sure you don’t purchase too many and be unable to carry your suitcase! I always find books everywhere I go that I ‘simply cannot live without’ and so by the end of any trip, I end up carrying all the extra books as carry on luggage wondering what is wrong with me. However, once home and I have found a new place for my precious books, I am so glad that I didn’t leave them on the shelf at the bookstore!
If you like to theme your travel trips on famous books, people or movies, then Shakespeare and Company is a must for you. The current store has been featured in many movies including my all time favourite Parisian movie, Midnight in Paris by director Woody Allen.
Have you visited Shakespeare & Company? I must admit I wandered around in circles trying to find it, only just missing it by metres. I kept walking down the wrong street, so here is the address:
37 rue de la Bûcherie
75005 Paris, France
Main Shop: Everyday, 10am – 11pm | Antiquarian: Tuesday to Saturday, 11am – 7pm
Have you had trouble finding a location whilst on holidays… only to find you were just metres away but could not see it? Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this! Till next time…
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Further Reading Resources
Ernest Hemingway’s classic ‘A Moveable Feast’ will definately set the scene for your visit to Shakespeare and Company (affiliate disclosure here) together with these further books.