Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Existential French Bookstore

I love bookstores and have visited many over the years throughout the world; but perhaps the most existential is the renowned Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Of course from the land of Camus and Manchette it is little surprise to find such a curious bookstore. In today’s Guardian, novelist Jeanette Winterson has a feature article on the history of this Parisian tourist attraction for Bibliophiles who visit from all over the world. Winterson’s piece reminded me of when I spent an entire day browsing reading and talking about books, which was one of the most remarkable memories of Paris I have.

Winterston reports today –

Way back, in 1913, the original Shakespeare and Company was opened by a young American called Sylvia Beach. Her shop in rue de l'Odéon soon became the place for all the English-speaking writers in Paris. Her lover, Adrienne Monnier, owned the French bookstore across the road, and she and Beach ran back and forth, finding penniless writers a place to stay, lending them books, arranging loans, taking their mail, sending their work to small magazines and, most spectacularly, publishing James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 when no one else would touch it. Hemingway was a regular at the shop, and writes about it in his memoir A Moveable Feast. His spare, emotional prose makes a poignant story of those early days, when material things weren't so important, and if you could get time to read and write, and live on cheap oysters and coarse bread and sleep by a stove somewhere, then you were happy.
It was Hemingway, as a major in the US army, who at the liberation of Paris in 1945 drove his tank straight to the shuttered Shakespeare and Company and personally liberated Sylvia Beach. "No one that I ever knew was nicer to me," he said later, rich, famous and with a Nobel prize.

But after the war, Beach was older and tired. She didn't reopen the shop that had been forced into closure by the occupation. It was George Whitman who took over the spirit of what she had made, but not the name - until 1962, when Beach attended a reading by Lawrence Durrell at the bookstore and they all agreed that it should be renamed Shakespeare and Company.
George took in the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Henry Miller ate from the stewpot, but was too grand to sleep in the tiny writers' room. Anaïs Nin left her will under George's bed. There are signed photos from Rudolf Nureyev and Jackie Kennedy, signed copies of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.

George opened his doors midday to midnight, and the deal then is the deal now: sleep in the shop, on tiny beds hidden among the bookstacks; work for two hours a day helping out with the running of the place; and, crucially, read a book a day, whatever you like, but all the way through, unless maybe it's War and Peace, in which case you can take two days.

George still reads a book a day, and gets very cross if he hears that anyone is wasting his time. You can be bawled out of Shakespeare and Company just as suddenly as you are invited in. The spirit of the place has to be honoured, and there are no exceptions.

At any time there are six or more young people from the compass points of the world, reading, talking, thinking, boiling spaghetti in the kettle, running across the road to the public showers, stacking, carrying, selling, stock-taking, and all in a spirit of energy and enterprise that is not to be found in any chain bookstores. They stay for two weeks or two months, and some just sleep outside on a bench until there's room inside.

If you are a published writer, then you might be able to stay in the tiny pod of the writers' room, and huddle against an ancient plug-in radiator and not worry too much if the electricity goes down and you have to abandon your laptop for a notepad. "There was no running water, no electricity when we started," George says. "It didn't matter. That stuff doesn't matter. Books, people, ideas, that's what matters."

Thousands of people have come through his doors, slept in his shop, eaten at his table, and many of them still write to him, or return. There's nothing quaint or historicalised about Shakespeare and Company. The values, the ethos and hospitality don't change, but the shop goes forward with the times. In 2006, aged 92, George retired, and his daughter, named after the original Sylvia, took over. She was 25 - the age difference tells you a lot about George, his appetites and his energies.

Sylvia lived in the shop until she was seven; then, after her parents' divorce, she went with her mother to be educated in England. It wasn't her intention to take over the shop, but she was drawn back in, and she has made it her life. "When I first arrived, we didn't even have a phone and Penguin was threatening to cut us off for not paying their bills, so I had to run round St Michel looking for a pay phone and ring Accounts in Essex." She adores her father, and is committed to carrying on his legacy - but in her own way. "Dad was furious when I took out one of the beds and installed a computer. When I told him we were going to start a literary festival and a publishing business, he said: 'Who's gonna cook for all those extra people?'"

Read all of Jeanette Winterson’s Guardian feature on Shakespeare and Company here and next time you find yourself in Paris and need something to read that will feed your mind, then head to Shakespeare and Company

More information here and notes from the 2008 literary festival here the next one is in 2010

Directions Here

Shakespeare & Company
37 rue de la Bûcherie
75005 Paris
Tel : 00 33 (0) 1 43 25 40 93
Mon - Sat 10am - 11pm
Sunday 11am - 11pm

History of Shakespeare and Company Here

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