Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shakespeare and Company: A literary shrine

Early this September, my husband and I traveled to Paris for the opening of my son’s art show. While we were enjoying the City of Light, I insisted that we visit Shakespeare and Company, the famous bookstore on the Left Bank. John dragged his feet (after all, we’d been there a few years earlier), but I was determined. It wasn’t just because I wanted a book to read on the flight home—though happily, I found a used copy of Penelope Lively’s Tiger Moon in the stalls outside the store. My need to visit the bookstore was visceral.  In an age of vanishing independents, I needed to honor a store that has been a magnet for book lovers and writers for almost a century.

A visit to Shakespeare and Company is a sensory experience. Warm, inviting colors welcome visitors, from the fir-green entrance to the many-hued book jackets inside.  New books on the ground floor smell fresh, while the secondhand titles upstairs are as musty as the old desks and beds that have served writers for years. Books line the shelves from floor to ceiling and cover every flat surface. It seems as if their weight could tip the store out onto the Rue de la Bûcherie. Signed photographs of visiting writers and artists are tucked away in the few spots of bare wall. Although most books are written in English, a Babel chorus of languages fills the tiny aisles. Tourists visit from around the world.

As I wended my way through the maze, I imagined Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Beckett, and William Burroughs climbing the stairs to write at one of the tiny desks. I thought of the many penniless writers who slept in the store’s narrow beds and wrote—in exchange for a daily two-hour stint at the cash register and the promise to read a book a day. I pictured Anäis Nin tucking her Last Will and Testament under Henry Miller’s bed. (An appropriate action, given their shared history.) I thought of the original bookstore under this name, run by Sylvia Beach. She famously hosted Hemingway and published James Joyce’s Ulysses. According to legend, Beach shuttered her bookstore during World War II rather than sell a copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a Nazi.   

I felt connected to the thousands of writers and readers who had made this pilgrimage before me, breathing in the same dust, soaking up the aura of a store that has inspired books—such as Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—or made cameo appearances in films, such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Visitors enter this literary shrine with the same hushed reverence as those who walk the stone aisles of Notre Dame, across the Seine.

Publishing—and everything else related to books—is changing fast, and no one knows what will happen to books and their creators. One of my OP novels is about to be issued as an e-book only, while my most recent young adult novel will be published as an e-book with a print-on-demand option. Yet our passion for the printed book is undiminished. We still want to feel a book’s weight, to study its design, dog-ear its pages, smell its paper. (Yes: a book can be an Endowed Object.) We like the secrecy and privacy of a printed book.  Like many children, I read under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep. Now I use a penlight, quietly turning the pages in those dark hours when sleep escapes me.

While many predict the demise of the printed book, recent reports note a surge in the number of independent bookstores opening around the country. One of our special favorites, the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, has just opened a second store in Saratoga Springs, New York, and reports a brisk business. Like other indies, the Northshire has branched out to sell toys, household items, clothing, and gifts. Another local favorite, Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also thrives. Tasty cafés, Internet connections, and a full slate of author events draw customers at these and other independents.

Shakespeare and Company is not immune to the modern realities of bookselling. A few years ago, Sylvia Beach Whitman (named for the founder of the original store) took over management from her father. She installed a phone and computer (to his horror), started a literary festival, and began hosting author signings and other events. But the store’s ethos and purpose haven’t changed. Even a brief visit made me feel part of a literary community that connects books, readers, and writers across time, oceans, and national boundaries. I can’t wait to go back.


  1. Shakespeare and Co. is a MUST-do for anyone who visits Paris. The tiny cot upstairs, the old piano, seating that lines the walls, filled with folks reading or absorbing the store's atmosphere and nostalgia. There's a hush throughout the store--as if everyone who steps through its doors feels the magic that will await them, a magic that would dissipate if acknowledged or spoken about. I spent about five weeks in Paris this summer. En route from Marie de Montrouge via le metro, Shakespeare and Co. was my first stop. I visit every time I'm in Paris, drawn there like a magnet to iron. Follow-up a coup de vin rouge at Les Deux Magots or Cafe de Flore--where those lit. giants ate, drank, and wrote, no less! Awesome post, Liza!

  2. "Follow-up *with* a coup..." #editingissues.

  3. Thanks to Gail Nosek for fixing my sloppy formatting! It's been a while since I've posted. Melissa: your post also brings it all back. Ahhhh--Paris. :)

  4. I hope to get to there someday! I might never leave.....