Updated: Apr 11, 2020
My family enjoys reading, and we love books. My son seems to have inherited this gene from both parents, and in him, it is amplified. Needless to say, we frequently visit bookstores on trips. When my son asked what bookstore we should visit while in Paris, "Shakespeare and Company" was first on my list. I confess to a certain thrill at visiting one of the most famous and celebrated independent bookstores in the world, particularly with my son.
If you are interested in an outstanding English language book store with an incredible view, this is definitely your slice of heaven. The location is magnificent, perched on prime real estate facing the Seine and looking out at Notre Dame. During the Christmas season, the Notre Dame Christmas market is also literally across the side street.
In front of the shop, there may be artisans selling their wares, a poetry reading, a queue to enter this humble spot, depending on the season, and always, a lot of people taking photographs.
George Whitman, the founder, was born in New Jersey and raised in Salem, Massachusetts. His lifelong passion for travel was ignited as a young boy, when he spent two years living in China where his father was an interim professor. Whitman later graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, traveled the United States, Mexico and Central America, both hitchhiking and on foot during the Great Depression, served in the U.S. Army and opened a book store in Massachusetts. He described his book store to a friend, as "modeled on the great Paris salons." I detect a foreshadowing in his words.
In August 1946, a ship transported him to Paris where he enrolled at the Sorbonne. His love of books continued; he traded his G.I. rations, earned as a medical warrant officer in the US army, for other veterans' book allowances and quickly became the owner of 1000 books. Whitman did not lock his apartment, allowing fellow readers to come and enjoy his books, whether he happened to be home or not. In 1951, George Whitman, a visionary, opened his left bank book shop, "Le Mistral", with his personal collection of one thousand books.
Whitman invited travellers, aspiring writers and artists, passing through Paris, to stay at his bookshop for free. That is actually a misnomer; he would ask them to help out at the bookstore, to agree to spend some of their time reading and writing, and to write a one-page autobiography for his shop's archives. The latter was non-negotiable. It is estimated that 30,000 people have slept in beds found tucked amongst the bookshelves. Whitman termed these shop guests "Tumbleweeds", which "blow in and out on the winds of chance". On Sunday mornings, his guests could look forward to Whitman's personal pancake breakfast.
The French Government awarded George Whitman one of its highest cultural honors, for his contribution to the arts over the preceding fifty years in 2006. He died two days after his 98th birthday in 2011.
You may be wondering how "Le Mistral" became "Shakespeare and Company"? Decades earlier, in 1914, Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate, had opened a bookstore and library named, "Shakespeare and Company" first in one location and then another. Beach's shop, was the hangout of its time for many famous writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and many more. It became the epicenter of American literary culture in Paris. Beach closed her store and lending library for the last time during the Nazi occupation in 1941. In 1964, Whitman's beloved bookshop "Le Mistral" was renamed "Shakespeare and Company" both in tribute to Sylvia Beach's renown store by the same name, and in celebration of Shakespeare's 400th birthday. The name change feels appropriate since Beach herself, after visiting Whitman's shop, called it the "spiritual successor" to her own.
George Whitman had only one child, a daughter. What did he name her? Sylvia Beach Whitman, and yes, it is apparent for whom she was named. In 2003, at the tender age of 22, Sylvia Whitman began co-managing the bookstore with her father. She continues to run it to this day with her partner David Delannet, in the same manner as her father did, still inviting young artists to reside within, for the same exchange as before.
I adored the signage outside which certainly tells part of the story, and my son was proud to have his photo taken in front.
The building is early 17th century and going inside feels like a walk back in time. The original shop has expanded but the space remains humble. It is a space to get lost in for an hour or an afternoon or a day or longer. It has been lauded near and far, and certainly with good reason.
Above one of the doorways is the quote "Live for humanity and be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise". I admire George Whitman's insight and courage and I adore his book shop.
And of course, we came home with a few more books.
Shakespeare and Company did not close during the recent French strikes but is now temporarily closed due to COVID-19.
Viva la Shakespeare and Company.