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Literature in Paris: Shakespeare & Co.

November 19, 2018

The exterior of the the Shakespeare and Company in Paris

The best bookstores are just as exciting as the books that they sell. Entering a bookshop should be an experience of anticipation and mystery, full of thrills and surprises, and if it’s a really good shop, it will have well-developed characters and a historical plot line that makes you gasp. The Shakespeare and Company in Paris is the well-crafted, multi-volume novel you have been searching for. Walking through its rooms is like sifting through the chapters of a novel. An adventure lays just beyond the next shelf and there are discoveries to be made in every corner. The old interior of the store on rue de la Bûcherie, with its exposed wooden beams and plaster walls, makes it feel as though the building itself has a story to tell, and it does.

The interior of the Shakespeare and Company in Paris

At Kilometer Zero Paris, this old monastery is wrought with poetic symbolism. But the story of the Shakespeare and Company in Paris starts on another street, rue l’Odeon, where Sylvia Beach opened a lending library in 1919. It was a place where Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and fellow artists would come to gather, searching for inspiration. Beach created a safe haven for Lost Generation writers. The store’s current manager, Octavia Horgan, says of Beach, “She went out of her way to help the literary world.” Beach was a woman who fostered the works of the yet-to-be literary giants and even published James Joyce’s book, Ulysses, when it had been denied by other publishers.

A cat sitting in the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris 

Sadly, with the occupation of France in WWII, Beach was forced to close her store and its pages. The store never did reopen. Enter a free-thinking American with a pocket full of G.I. money. George Whitman opened Le Mistral bookstore in 1951 in the space of an old monastery across the Seine from Notre Dame. Named in remembrance of a tumultuous ex-lover, Whitman strove to create a place for intellectual exchange as well as for romance (his bookshelves all lacked backings, making it possible for visitors to make eye contact over the books and fall in love).

What Shakespeare and Company was to The Lost Generation, Le Mistral soon came to be for The Beatniks. Attracting the likes of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, the new generation of expat writers came to Whitman’s store thirsty for inspiration and a desire to exchange progressive ideas. It became a hotspot for exploding new philosophies and avant garde writing. Whitman’s free spirit and trusting nature allowed friends, and even strangers, to sleep in the store if they had nowhere else to stay. These overnighters came to be known as Tumbleweeds, a title Whitman himself had assumed during his previous travels through South America.

An older Beach recognized the kindred spirits between her shop and Le Mistral. It is said that she approached Whitman and offered up the namesake of her iconic, but now closed bookstore. Whitman graciously accepted and Le Mistral was re-christened as Shakespeare and Company. The store has since carried on the legacy of nurturing a deep love for reading and writing. Today, the spirits of the Beach, Whitman, Hemingway and Burroughs, and so many others live on. Their stories and souls can be found on the bookshelves and in the quotes that adorn the walls of the store. “This place is a living thing,” says Horgan, as she gently brushes her hand along the spines of the books. The shop is a collage of all who have found refuge here. The different voices can almost be heard in the pele mele décor that is quirky and warm. It’s no surprise that books are known to fall off their shelves and be picked up by their perfect reader. Coincidence has long ago been ruled out. It is either ghosts or magic.

There is little consistency in the décor here, but that further emphasizes that the only things that matter are reading and inspiring. There are crumbling floor tiles and mismatched picture frames, rusting typewriters and fading love letters, but in every second-hand chair there sits an avid reader with a brow knit in concentration.

Their goal has been achieved. I could go on to describe every treasure and gem that lays hidden in the store, the surprising boxes and rooms, but that would be a bit like ruining the end of a book. It’s better if you read it yourself.

Blog written by our Paris Network Developer, Krystal Kenney

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P Klausner says:
2 weeks ago

Great blog post. Having read the book Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation…I am excited to check out this book store next time I’m in Paris. Thank you!