Friday, September 24, 2010

Why aren't there bookstores like this here?

I'm just back from Paris where, of course, I had to visit the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore. The original bookstore was owned by Sylvia Beach from New Jersey, and was the hang-out of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Hemingway, among others. Hemingway wrote lovingly about it in A Moveable Feast. Beach helped struggling writers have an intellectual and (sometimes) literal home. She published Ulysses when no one else would touch it, and sent the work of talented writers to literary magazines. The bookstore was closed down during the occupation in WWII. The one I visited was created by George Whitman (originally from MA, so another ex-patriot), who was enamoured enough with Ms. Beach to name his daughter after her. He opened his own bookstore on the left bank, but it wasn't until after Ms. Beach's death that he renamed his bookstore, in homage, Shakespeare and Company. He lived in the bookstore, sleeping on a mattress on the second floor, which is still there, next to a piano, which I sat down and played for a while. There are murals of Stein, Hemingway et al. There's an alcove with an old typewriter, a reading room with lots of windows, and more books to borrow than to buy. During Whitman's reign, a new generation of writers hung out: Corso, Ginsberg, Nin, Henry Miller. Starving writers were fed and slept in the shop. In turn, they worked two hours a day and were exhorted to read a book a day. George, in his nineties, no longer lives in the bookstore, but above. His daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, currently runs the shop. She lived inside of it until she was seven, then moved to England with her mother. The only modern touch she seems to have added is a computer. I hung out there for a long time, and bought Human Croquet, by Kate Atkinson for five Euros. Of course there were many wonderful bookstores in Paris, seemingly on every corner. Another English one is called The Red Wheelbarrow. The owner was there. My husband offered that I wrote books, and she ordered them for the shop. This shop was organized and filled with literary translations and great literature. Michael picked up a book, and the owner said, "That author will be here in five minutes." Apparently, she also gives work to authors.

Thankfully, I have a lovely independent bookstore here, called Island Books. I am thinking of asking the owner, Judy, to lay a mattress down for cold nights when I am too tired to drive over the bridge. A piano would also be nice. But the mattress might not impress her other customers. What do you think?


  1. Couldn't hurt to try! We have a drinking jar from Shakespeare & Co., which my sister nicked while she was living there. She slept on bunk bed made from old doors.

  2. ahh, Paris...

    There used to be three independent bookstores in Portland, Maine--all with distinct tastes and personalities. Now there is just one, but it's pretty amazing, and they are extremely fond of local authors (too bad I hardly live there anymore, but they are still loyal to me, since they knew me when I was pre-published tot). And there's an excellent comic book store in town, as well.

    I was in Belgium this summer and there were comic book stores in every town, sometimes several, all run by cigar smoking Belgians spouting stories from way back when (too bad I don't understand Flemish) and probably living in the back. There was Tin-Tin and Asterix galore, as well as some really AMAZING contemporary graphic work and storytelling by some European writers/artists that aren't even printed over here!

  3. I've been to the one in Portland. No mattress, but a wonderful feeling and great books stacked everywhere. When I was there, Lisa, a man came in and asked numerous times to check out a book. The lady who worked there was most kind in trying to make him understand that it was a book store, not a library. It makes my heart sink to go into corporate bookstores.