Shakespeare and Company Bookstore

Posted on November 23, 2009 by VINGT Editorial vingt-paris-magazine-shakespeareandco-wallygobetz

Text: Philippa Brangam
Image: Wally Gobetz

Henry Miller aptly described Shakespeare & Co as a wonderland of books. On stepping through the door out of the hustle and bustle of the busy Latin Quarter it is easy to see what he meant. The piles of books over two floors almost insulate the outside noise from coming through, and provide a literary sanctuary. The manner in which a particular book may catch your eye seems to come from an almost cosmic destiny. Many a love affair between author and reader has begun inside these walls. Here books are king. Painted over the doorway at the top of the staircase is the slogan ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’. For those who have visited will know that Shakespeare & Co is much more than just a bookshop, it is an institution which has been upheld for almost a hundred years.

The original Shakespeare & Co was opened in 1913 by American Sylvia Beach in the rue de l’Odeon. The shop immediately became a focus for ex-pat American, British and Irish authors. She devoted much of her time to helping penniless writers, lending them books and finding them a place to stay – a tradition that is ongoing in the new location today. Financial difficulties and the fall of Paris in 1941 forced her to close. She was interned during the war for refusing to sell the last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German Officer.  Keeping her books hidden in a vacant apartment upstairs, she was famously liberated by Ernest Hemingway who fearlessly drove his tank to the boarded up shop. However, the shop never reopened for business. The current home of Shakespeare & Co was originally a bookshop called Le Mistral, opened in 1951 by George Whitman. With permission from Sylvia, the name was changed in 1962 and the spirit of the original Shakespeare & Co lives on. Like Sylvia who nurtured young talent, George took young poets and writers under his wing, allowing them to stay for free in return for two hours of work a day. His only other request was that they read one book a day, a tradition which is still continuing and the young hopeful Tumbleweeds are ever present. George is now 95 and since 2006 his daughter Sylvia, named after Sylvia Beach, has taken over the running of the shop and is committed to continuing her father’s legacy.

Weekly activities like the Monday night reading from a published author, the Sunday tea party and the Other Writers Group pull crowds of all ages coming to Paris with their own dreams and ambitions. There is no snobbery to Saturday’s Other Writers Group run by David Barnes. Not exclusive to people who have brought something to read, many sit and just listen, soaking up the rich atmosphere and wonderland-like quality that Miller described. Herein lies the meaning of the slogan and the heart of what draws so many to Shakespeare & Co – it is a community. It is a place which makes literature accessible to all, hopefully for many more years to come.

Shakespeare & Co
37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 5th
Ph: 01 43 25 40 93
Hours: 7/7 10am-11pm
Metro: Saint-Michel (4)