Few names loom larger in Paris’s literary imagination than Shakespeare and Company. In the bookish nooks of this Left Bank store, writing careers have been forged, romances ignited and wide-eyed tourists introduced to something of la vie bohème.
A decade ago, when I began visiting my new boyfriend (now husband) in Paris, he wooed me in the piano room of the grotto-like store, where hardback biographies are stacked like the Manhattan skyline and shop tabby Aggie is often to be found curled up in a warm spot behind the door. On the recommendation of one of the shop’s enthusiastic young staff we would buy novels, English originals, or translations of French books. Then we would stroll along the Quai de Montebello, fancying ourselves as F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (they were part of the scene at Shakespeare and Company in the 1920s). Or we might while away afternoons in the shop’s first-floor library, where books are famously not for sale and there are views through cracked windows of Notre Dame framed by cherry trees. It seemed like the vestige of an older Paris; a Paris that always put art above profit.
Sadly, like many of Europe’s cultural institutions, Shakespeare and Company is now under threat. Even before “reconfinement”, as Parisians politely term their second Covid lockdown, the store’s sales had fallen by 80 percent. In October Shakespeare and Company began selling books online, with staff turning the shop’s poetry room into a book-packing production line for the first time in its 100-year history. The shop has had to pause to catch up with orders, but will resume selling online on December 1.
“It’s been so sad,” says Krista Halverson, director of Shakespeare and Company’s publishing arm, of the shop’s eerily quiet aisles. “We’re used to throngs of tourists popping in to buy A Moveable Feast.” Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris mentions the shop and is one of its best sellers. “It feels as if a shadow has eclipsed us.”
Where the Lost Generation Went to Shop
Founded in 1919 by the modernist publisher Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company moved from Saint-Germain to its current Seine-side location in 1951, under the ownership and management of shock-haired American eccentric George Whitman, who sought to build a shop that was akin to “a book that leads into a magical world in the imagination”. William Burroughs researched The Naked Lunch in Shakespeare and Company’s ancient medical tomes; fellow beats Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso stripped naked for a 1958 poetry recital; and Anaïs Nin swigged bordeaux from the bottle at the 1974 launch of her memoir.
Since the 1950s, Shakespeare and Company has played host to the aspiring young writers Whitman dubbed the “tumbleweeds”, who are invited to sleep on makeshift beds erected on its bookshelves, borrow freely from its library and pay their keep by manning the tills.
In 2014, Alex Christofi spent two weeks sleeping on a shelf in Shakespeare and Company’s nonfiction section, researching his Paris-set novel Let Us Be True. “I loved that they made room for young waifs and strays like me who wanted to be part of the literary world,” he says. “I had a lovely time there with the other tumbleweeds: a young Portuguese poet, Americans steeped in Kerouac. We drank wine and ate cheese into the small hours, then we’d get up before 8am, woolly-headed, to clear away our beds for the day’s book trade.”
Canadian author Jeremy Mercer lived at the shop for five months in the late 1990s and has fond memories of being taken to Latin Quarter restaurants by Whitman, the latter’s pockets packed with camera film containers filled with vodka. “He taught us that by living cheaply and celebrating life we’d know true freedom,” he recalls. “The shop fostered a creative imagination in young travelers like me.”
“We’re used to throngs of tourists popping in to buy A Moveable Feast. It feels as if a shadow has eclipsed us.”
Now, finding that it can’t compete with the Amazon behemoth, Shakespeare and Company is launching a membership scheme inspired by a ruse that got the shop through the 1930s Great Depression. “TS Eliot and Hemingway were members of that first scheme,” Halverson explains. “In fact, Hemingway overcame his famous reluctance to joining clubs and was a founder ‘friend’, just to keep us going.” With membership from $53 a year, today’s friends of Shakespeare and Company will get a monthly serving of original digital content, including book readings by notable actors and original pieces by literary supporters such as Dave Eggers.
Jeanette Winterson is the co-author of a book about the history and cultural significance of the store, and says its loss would leave more than a void on the Parisian tourist map. “Young and old, visitors and Parisians, readers and non-readers have found common ground at Shakespeare and Company for so many years: not only through books, but through its values,” she says. “I’d urge all who care about the life of the mind to support it.”
Halverson recalls that George Whitman, who died in 2011 at the age of 98 and whose daughter Sylvia now runs the store, used to liken himself to the lamplighters who illuminated the streets of the Medieval Rive Gauche. “‘I’m just a frère lampier,’ he’d tell us, referring to his role in keeping Paris’s literary light alive. Now it’s up to us to ensure that light isn’t extinguished.”