When I was in Paris last year, my friend and I went on a bit of a roundabout wild goose chase to find this bookstore before realizing we had walked right by the street that it was on. (My personal photos of S & Co.)
There’s something special about being in Paris, especially in the springtime. There’s so much to see and do, and so many wonderful places to eat. You become filled with the vibrancy of the city, and it invites you to wander its alleyways and tiny streets, looking for that perfect place. However, even the best traveler can sometimes have a bout of homesickness – that moment when you just want a taste of something familiar. I had just such a moment when visiting Paris in my twenties. There were no e-readers, definitely no reading on your phone and books were just too heavy to carry around. All I wanted was something to read – in English. I asked around, and ended up at the front door of Shakespeare and Company, on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame. Little did I know that it would be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Shakespeare and Company was actually a different bookstore altogether when George Whitman first opened its doors. Whitman was an American who remained in Paris after the war, and who collected so many English language books that his friends suggested he open a bookstore. Called “Le Mistral” after his girlfriend, it was a bohemian refuge for Beat poets and other English-language authors and readers. Most notably, Whitman invited struggling authors to stay at the bookstore in exchange for free labour in the store even from the first night they opened. There was another bookstore in Paris named Shakespeare and Company, run by Sylvia Beach who famously ‘gave’ the name of the store (and later bequeathed her collection of books) to Whitman over dinner one night. Whitman and Beach were great colleagues, and Whitman even named his daughter after her. Sylvia Beach Whitman took over the running of Shakespeare and Company in 2003 when she was only 22, and she continues to run the store exactly the way her father did for so many years.
What makes this bookstore so special? It’s hard to define. Perhaps it’s the rotating collection of bohemian authors (as many as thirteen at a time) who live and work in the bookstore for various lengths of time. It could be the rich history of the place that has attracted so many known and unknown authors to the place – so many, in fact, that there is every chance that the book you take off the shelf might very well be signed by the author. Perhaps it’s the famous cats that might greet you with haughty disdain when you enter, or who are asleep in the reading nooks set in the windows. You might arrive in time for tea on Sunday, or remember Whitman’s infamous pancake breakfasts for authors. Or, just perhaps, it’s the vast and frankly overwhelming collection that will draw you in and leave you wandering the aisles and rooms for hours, finding treasure after treasure that you just must purchase. There is a timeless disorganized chaos to the place; be prepared to wander and to ‘treasure hunt’ your way through things (it’s the antithesis of Indigo in every way). I always swear that I won’t buy anything else to lug around when I visit Paris, until I set foot in the bookstore and promptly break that rule again.
Shakespeare and Company is a tiny, vibrant gem in a brilliant city and it is worth the time to explore. You won’t regret a minute you spend there. Oh, and if you are lucky enough to buy a book there, remember to ask them to stamp it with their signature stamp for a truly unique Parisian souvenir!