Today I returned some books to the library and picked a new one to read: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher. It’s a fictionalized biography of Sylvia Beach, the founder of the first Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris.
I was drawn to the topic because I had been to Shakespeare and Company, although, as I know now, it was not the original bookstore started by Sylvia Beach.
How did I end up at this iconic bookshop in Paris in 1971? I’ve been trying to remember but it’s a long time—fifty years—ago. I was twenty, attending the University of Bordeaux, and hitchhiking to Paris with a friend whenever we could.
Perhaps we were looking for a free place to sleep. At the time, the proprietor was George Whitman. He was slim, slightly hunched, missing some teeth, wearing disheveled clothes. He drifted through the store eating a soft-boiled egg out of a glass. The yellow yolk stands out in my memory.
The bookstore itself was perfect: musty, cluttered, stuffed with books. The clientele ranged from older history buffs, writers, and literary tourists to unwashed youthful travelers.
We were directed upstairs where the travelers crashed. My friend and I looked around at the backpacks, rumpled sleeping bags, dirty dishes, and agreed that this was not for us. We’d find a cheap hotel room instead.
Here’s a bit of history, excerpted from the link below:
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 bookshop was founded by American George Whitman at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Kilometer Zero, the point at which all French roads begin. Constructed in the early 17th century, the building was originally a monastery, La Maison du Mustier. George liked to pretend he was the sole surviving monk, saying, “In the Middle Ages, each monastery had a frère lampier, a monk whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I’m the frère lampier here now. It’s the modest role I play.”
When the store first opened, it was called Le Mistral. George changed it to the present name in April 1964—on the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth—in honor of a bookseller he admired, Sylvia Beach, who’d founded the original Shakespeare and Company in 1919. Her store at 12 rue de l’Odéon was a gathering place for the great expat writers of the time—Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound—as well as for leading French writers.
Through his bookstore, George Whitman endeavored to carry on the spirit of Beach’s shop, and it quickly became a center for expat literary life in Paris. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin were among early visitors to the shop.
And a little more:
It’s Paris’ second Shakespeare and Company bookstore
This bookstore takes its name from an older store which was started in Paris in 1919, by a lady called Sylvia Beach, another US expatriate. It was at 12 rue de l’Odéon and in the years leading up to World War II, it became a literary haven and a publisher in its own right – it was the only place that published James Joyce’s Ulysses in its entirety when no one else would. The store was closed by the Germans in 1941 and Sylvia was interned. Ernest Hemingway is said to have arrived at the shop after Paris’ Liberation and personally declared it reopen, but it never did. At least not in the same location or with the same owner. Sylvia Beach bequeathed the official name to George Whitman in the late 1950s and upon her death, he renamed his bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, in her and the store’s honour. He had originally called his store Le Mistral.
I’ve only begun to read Maher’s book, but it’s promising to be a good one.
And, if you go to Paris, check out this historic bookseller.