Paris’ Haven for Creative Souls

Shakespeare & co.

By Naomi Morris Omori

Situated on Paris’ Left Bank, opposite the river Seine and the Notre Dame, lies a little piece of heaven and a feast for your inner creativity. Shakespeare and Company on 37 rue de la Bûcherie is the most famous bookshop in Paris, if not the world. It is recognised across Europe for its ethos as a sanctuary for writers and readers alike, a bookshop, a lending library and a roof with a warm bed for any established or aspiring writer.

From standing outside in the chilly Parisian breeze, the mysteriously dark windows excited curiosity within me and I peeped behind the door beneath the celebrated sign. I found myself to be on a black and white marble floor (much like the one at College) in a room with high ceilings and books towering above. The books being stacked so high above reach gave an impression of attempted intimidation; however, the colourful spines and occasional tags marking second-hands lent character to the shop, rather than feelings of hostility. I walked past the till where a young student sat, surrounded by a landfill of delicately arranged hardbacks, to a series of rooms which were so diminutive yet interlinked that they reminded me of a series of caves.

Bookworms and tourists wondered around as if they had fallen down the rabbit hole and all thoughts of why Mr Waistcoat-wearing Rabbit was late had long vanished as the melancholic air settled within the minds of all. Philosophy, travel, poetry, religion, fiction… The shelves could not have been more jam-packed. Climbing up a narrow set of wooden stairs, a typewriter was set up on an oak table and a chess board was busily occupied. There was not an inch of plaster which was not covered with a shelf and a colourful row of books. An inundated shelf with paperbacks pouring out from the sides was accompanied by a handwritten note apologising for the temporary disorder.

The first Shakespeare and Company shop was originally established in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate, and it later moved to a larger premises on 12 rue de l’Odéon in 1921 where it stayed until 1941. During the 1920s, it became a hub for Anglo-American literary culture and modernism in Paris and a favourite haunt amongst many writers from ‘The Lost Generation’ such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, George Antheil and Man Ray. D.H. Lawrence’s controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover was available to buy or borrow here and Beach published James Joyce’s similarly contentious Ulysses in 1922 under the name of the shop, although they were both banned back in the U.K. and the U.S.

After the shop closed down in WWII and did not re-open after France’s liberation (even though it was personally liberated by Hemmingway himself), the late George Whitmore opened up a bookshop in 1951 in what used to be a monastery from the 17th century, with a view of the Notre Dame. He renamed his shop to pay remembrance to the original, following the decease of Beach in 1962 and over the following decades he bought the neighbouring shop and floors above to expand the bookshop which you can visit today. George Whitmore sadly passed away in December last year and his daughter, Sylvia Whitmore (named after the original Sylvia) continues to run the place and keep its magic alive.

Shakespeare & Co.

I turned a corner upstairs to observe a fatigued piano and upon doing so, startled a grey-haired man who was asleep on a cushioned bench with a book glued to his right hand. I apologetically scurried away and left the sleeping man and chess-players to it. Writers are free to ‘tumbleweed,’ where at night the beds hidden upstairs amongst the piles of leather-bound pages are offered to writers in exchange for helping hands, stacking books during the day. The only condition of their stay is that they read one book a day, a rule set out by Whitmore which he followed himself and continued to follow right up until his death, two days after his 98th birthday.

The lofty shelves and the shop’s motto which is imprinted on the wall, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise,” have given inspiration to some 50,000 heads which have rested on the beds at night and Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Allen Ginsberg are just a few of the people who shared ‘a tea and a pancake with George,’ according to Shakespeare and Company’s website.

The bookstore now hosts weekly readings, creative writing workshops and the Paris Literary Festival. Upstairs, one slice of a wall is covered by notes scrawled in different languages, thanking George Whitman for allowing aspiring writers and artists to enter such a magical place. It has been described by some as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world and one does not have to look far behind the thick Parisian curtains covering the doorway to discover why.

Photography: 1,2) Naomi Morris Omori. 3) Filip_is_untitled on Flickr (CC BY N-D 2.0). 4) Sarah Ross photography on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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