This independent bookstore, located on the left bank of Paris, is a wet dream for literary lovers. For those of you who have read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” then you’ve already been introduced to its first incarnation. It was 1919 when the American Sylvia Beach opened up on 8 rue Dupuytren, in the 6th district of Paris. Three years later, needing more space, she moved around the corner to rue de l’Odéon before closing down in 1941 due to the German occupation. The legacy she left behind is legendary: not only did luminary figures, such as Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound and the aforementioned Hemingway, consider her a friend but Shakespeare and Company had become more than just a bookstore. It was a place of shelter for literary stragglers and Sylvia had started publishing works that she believed in - perhaps the most famous example is James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
Fast forward a decade when another American named George Whitman - no relation to poet Walt - opened the bookstore Le Mistral at 37 rue de la Bûcherie. Sylvia Beach becomes a frequent visitor leading to a friendly acquaintance with George. In 1964, on the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, George renamed his store Shakespeare and Company. By all accounts, the bookstore’s owner was a unique character. An avid traveller and always surrounded by books - even when serving in the war - George chose to live above Shakespeare and Company for the rest of his life. He made the bookshelves by hand and laid down the stone pavings. Sections were thoughtfully selected with book browsers in mind. Legend has it he had a penchant for throwing books at those unlucky to annoy him. Behind all the eccentricity lay a kind individual who liked to offer a helping hand to those in need.
“I believe we’re all homeless wanderers in a way” he was known to say. As a recipient of significant kindness from strangers during his extensive travels, George created the Tumbleweed programme for aspiring or published writers, which is still going strong today. The premise is the same now as it was back then: you sleep in the shop, you help out for a couple of hours each day and you read one book per day. Tempting no? To think you could spend some time in the Blue Oyster Tearoom or Old Smoky Reading Room, treading the same floorboards as Jack Kerouac, Zadie Smith, Ethan Hawke and Jeannette Winterson (to name but a few).
Woven into the bookstore’s tapestry is also the story of Sylvia, George's daughter, who grew up to become the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company. In case you’re wondering, yes she is named after Sylvia Beach! The magic of growing up amongst so many books and well-known literary figures was cut-short when Sylvia’s parents separated, triggering a lengthy estrangement from George. In 2002, after a complicated reconciliation, Sylvia became involved in the day to day running of the store with her father, whom she addressed by his first name just like everyone else. She introduced some much needed, modern day essentials that were lacking such as a telephone, a computer and a credit card machine!
Faced with the challenge of keeping up with the competition, whilst maintaining the bookstore’s independent spirit, Sylvia has played a pivotal role in breathing new life into the place: the updated website features an online store; a Shakespeare and Company café can be found next door; a biennial literary festival is up and running; creative workshops take place frequently at the store and free readings / discussions by a published author happen every week. For me, Shakespeare and Company is a safe haven whenever I'm in need of nourishment. Whether I need to spend a moment by myself browsing the bookshelves, or meet a friend next door at the café, or simply be inspired by one of the invited authors, Shakespeare and Company is the only place to be.
+33 (0)1 43 25 40 93
37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris