By MW | ET Student
I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations. —George Whitman
Paris’ prized bookshop Shakespeare & Company is situated at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Kilometer Zero across from Notre Dame and along the riverbank of the Seine. This tiny bookstore tucked in between spilling cafes and cobblestoned streets boasts of thousands of English literary masterpieces and an environment which has inspired writers from across the globe.
American George Whitman opened the shop in 1951 with the name Le Mistral, French for the cold, northernly wind along the Mediterranean coast of France. However, on the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth he renamed his bookstore in honor of the renowned bookseller Sylvia Beach who founded the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919. Her controversial work brought Joyce’s Ulysses to Paris as well as Hemingway’s first work into the literary spotlight.
Whitman attempted to keep the heart and spirit of Sylvia Beach’s store alive by cultivating a literary community and center for wandering writers. Small beds serving also as benches were squeezed in between shelves, and patrons were invited to stay awhile, to nap amidst piles of books. These same benches, now covered in an emerald green velour, are still open to the public today but will likely be shared with the bookstore’s sleepy cat, Aggie.
When Shakespeare & Company first opened, names like poet Allen Ginsberg, musician Richard Wright of Pink Floyd, World War II author James Jones, and leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance James Baldwin were among visitors to the shop.
Since these early days, an estimated 30,000 aspiring and successful writers have wandered the wooded aisles of Shakespeare & Company. George Whitman described these writers as Tumbleweeds, “[drifting] in and out with the winds of chance.” The second floor of Shakespeare & Company includes a wall dedicated first to Sylvia Beach and also to the one-page biographies of many travelers and writers who have left a hand-written mark in a space of inspiration.
For more information on the flourishing bookstore, consider reading the recently released Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart which includes more than 300 images through its history and editorials from those who have visited and experienced the literary culture of Paris throughout the ages.