SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY: THE BOOKSTORE THAT KEEPS PROGRESSIVE LITERATURE ALIVE
This ramshackle bookstore in Paris has kept the beat of history.
The store was the center of Anglo-American literary culture and modernism in Paris until World War II. Writers and artists of the “Lost Generation,” including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, George Antheil and Man Ray, among others, spent a great deal of time there. The shop was nicknamed “Stratford-on-Odéon” by James Joyce, who used it as his office.
The first was opened by Sylvia Beach on November 19, 1919, at 8 rue Dupuytren, before moving to larger premises at 12 rue de l’Odéon in the 6th arrondissement in 1922. During the 1920s, Beach’s shop was a gathering place for many then-aspiring young writers such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford. It closed in 1940 during the German occupation of Paris and never re-opened.
The second is situated at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, in the 5th arrondissement. Opened in 1951 by George Whitman, it was originally named “Le Mistral”, but was renamed to “Shakespeare and Company” in 1964 in tribute to Sylvia Beach’s store. Today, it serves both as a regular bookstore, a second-hand books store, and as a reading library, specializing in English-language literature. The shop has become a popular tourist attraction, and was featured in the Richard Linklater film Before Sunset, and in Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris.
Sylvia Beach, the founder, was an American expatriate from New Jersey. She established Shakespeare and Company in 1919 at 8 rue Dupuytren. The store functioned as a lending library as well as a bookstore. In 1921, Beach moved it to a larger location at 12 rue de l’Odéon, where it remained until 1940. During this period, the store was the center of Anglo-American literary culture and modernism in Paris. Writers and artists of the “Lost Generation,” including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, George Antheil and Man Ray, among others, spent a great deal of time there, and the shop was nicknamed “Stratford-on-Odéon” by James Joyce, who used it as his office.
The books sold were considered high quality, reflected from Beach’s own taste. Hemingway mentions and writes about the denizens found about the store in A Moveable Feast.
Beach published Joyce’s controversial book Ulysses in 1922. It, too, was banned in the United States and Britain. Later editions were also published under the Shakespeare and Company imprint. She also encouraged the publication in 1923, and sold copies of Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems.
The original Shakespeare and Company closed on 14 June 1940, during the German occupation of France in World War II. It has been suggested that it may have been ordered shut because Beach denied a German officer the last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. When the war ended, Hemingway “personally liberated” the store, but it never re-opened.
George Whitman’s Bookstore
In 1951, another English-language bookstore was opened on Paris’s Left Bank by American ex-serviceman George Whitman, under the name of Le Mistral. Its premises, the site of a 16th-century monastery, are at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, near Place Saint-Michel, just steps from the Seine, Notre Dame and the Île de la Cité. Much like Shakespeare and Company, the store became the focal point of literary culture in bohemian Paris, and was frequented by many Beat Generation writers including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. Whitman modeled his shop after Sylvia Beach’s and, in 1958 while dining with George, she publicly announced that she was handing the name to him for his bookshop.
In 1964, after Sylvia Beach’s death, Whitman renamed his store “Shakespeare and Company” in tribute to the original, describing the name as “a novel in three words”. He called the venture “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Customers have included the likes of Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and Richard Wright. The bookstore has sleeping facilities and Whitman claimed that as many as 40,000 people have slept there over the years.
From 1978-1981, a group of American and Canadian expatriates ran a literary journal out of the upstairs library, called Paris Voices. The journal published young writers such as Welsh poet Tony Curtis and Irish playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry. The editor-in-chief was Kenneth R. Timmerman and the editorial team included Canadian Antanas Sileika, among others. Timmerman became a novelist and political writer in the USA and Sileika a Canadian novelist. The journal hosted readings that attracted aspiring literary travelers as well as a scattering of voices from the past such as Beat poet Ted Joans and journalist Jack Belden.
Awarded the Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2006, one of France’s highest cultural honors, George Whitman died at the age of 98 on 14 December 2011. His daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman, named after Sylvia Beach, joined him at the bookstore in 2006 after living for 10 years in London and Edinburgh with her mother. She began revamping the store and the rooms for writers. The marketing plan included sponsored events along with university students invited as writer-in-residence. She now runs the store in the same manner as her father, allowing young writers to live and work there. Regular activities are Sunday tea, poetry readings and writers’ meetings. In 2008 she founded FestivalandCo, a literary festival held biennially at the shop and which has hosted Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Jeanette Winterson, Jung Chang and Marjane Satrapi. She appeared in the Paris episodes of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson which aired on 1 August 2011.
The bookstore was a sanctuary for some twenty of its customers during the November 2015 Paris attacks.
The four Shakespeare and Company bookstores in New York City, which opened starting in 1981, are not affiliated with the Paris store.
THE NEW OWNER OF SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY
SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY: TURNING THE PAGE
by Kate McBride
May 20, 2012
The view from the front window of the ramshackle bookstore looks out past a few trees to the river Seine and beyond to Notre Dame, towering high on the Ile de la Cité. No. 37 rue de la Bûcherie is home to Shakespeare & Company, a Parisian writers’ and readers’ institution whose longtime owner, American-born George Whitman, lived in a third-floor apartment above the shop until his death last December. Before George, the neighborhood, one of the oldest in Paris, was occupied by a monaster
According to George, the name and the spirit of Shakespeare & Company were given to him in 1958 by Sylvia Beach, the owner of the original Paris bookstore of that name. Opened in 1919, Beach’s store moved to 12 rue de l’Odéon in 1921, where it became the center of Anglo-American literary life in Paris, a favorite haunt of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and many others. Forced to close the store during World War II, Beach never reopened it.
Several years later Beach announced she would pass on the name (and spirit) during a reading by Lawrence Durrell at the bookstore George Whitman had opened in 1951, at the time called Le Mistral.
Beach and Whitman shared a belief in operating their businesses as lending libraries as well as retail bookshops, providing a place for authors and poets to congregate and present their work, and even a place for them to sleep and eat. Beach died in 1962. According to Whitman, in her will she left a number of books from her private collection to him, and the legal rights to the name Shakespeare & Company. When his only daughter was born in 1981, Whitman named her Sylvia Beach Whitman—when you meet Sylvia Beach II today, it feels as though nothing has changed within the literary landscape of Paris.
Whitman was married once, briefly, to Sylvia’s mother, Felicity Leng. Sylvia grew up mostly in England, and attended University College London. Almost ten years ago, at the age of 22, she assumed management of her father’s business and revitalized what had become an endangered institution.
According to George, in anticipation of his death, developers were trying to buy every apartment they could in the bookstore’s building. Their intention was to turn the building into condominium apartments that could boast a view of Notre Dame. Sylvia Whitman now owns the bookstore space and several other apartments in the building, including the one on the third floor. She purchased another space next door in 2009 and, rumor has it, a café may open there. The developers are in retreat for the moment.
My photographer husband James and I were newcomers to Whitman’s Shakespeare & Company on our first visit in the winter of 2003. James asked George about the possibility of shooting his portrait but, said George, the timing wasn’t right—he was busy tending the till. On subsequent visits, he was either asleep, grumpy or out somewhere. In February of 2007 we happened to see him leaning out the third-floor window, looking across at Notre Dame. James took a quick snap to record the lucky moment and tried to satisfy his desire to photograph George by shooting other inhabitants of the bookstore including Jonathan, a brainy young kid from Ireland who would soon be on his way to study at Oxford after living at “S & Co” for a time.
People still live at the store today. Moments after closing time at 11 pm, the residents move piles of books aside and sleep on makeshift beds that double as book display platforms during the day. Under Sylvia’s management, the tradition continues at the “Hotel Tumbleweed”, George’s nickname for the overnight operations.
The general rule is that you are allowed to sleep in the store if you are a writer, though we understood from George that he sometimes stretched the term to include musicians, artists and young women. The first step toward entry was to show George your manuscript, write a short autobiography and, if he approved, you were in rent-free, in exchange for working the check-out desk, re-shelving books, cleaning and errand-running.
When we first met Sylvia, she told us she was intent on keeping the eclectically cluttered place intact, except for some welcome changes including regular cleaning, the opening of the normally closed “collectibles” branch next door and the installation of a cash register to replace the disconcerting rounding off that occurred due to sales being tallied in someone’s head. (To note, the rounding off was always down to keep customers happy.) Today paying with a credit card is perfectly acceptable. Sylvia also reluctantly gave in to the city’s mandate to replace the rickety staircase that led to the second floor lending library and children’s area with one that met city building codes.
A Moses Moment
On a visit to Paris in 2008, James and I made our usual stop at S & Co to get the weather report on George. Shooting a portrait that morning was a no-go, but Sylvia suggested we try coming back after lunch. We returned around 2:30, with our young friend Josh along to help, just in time to see Sylvia leading George into the stairwell for his daily journey up the three winding flights. When she returned to the store, James asked her what she thought about the possibility of taking some pictures, and she said, “Sure, give it a try, the door’s open, just go on in”.
James was reluctant to open George’s door when he didn’t answer to our knock, but in we went, introducing ourselves. George responded by asking James “Have I read you?”, making the assumption he was a writer. James said “No, but I’d like to shoot you”. George rose to his feet from his small bench-like perch, where he was working on a plate of leftover chicken kept warm by a metal-can contraption placed over a Bunsen burner. He proclaimed in a commanding voice: “OK, let’s get it over with! Should I change?” He was wearing a baggy pair of pajamas. We agreed that, “No, it’s not necessary,” and helped George settle in at the front window alcove, where a small table and two chairs neatly fit.
George seemed happy to be having his photo taken, gazing out the window toward Notre Dame, chin held high, looking like Moses with his electrified hair and deep grooves in his face. We almost expected him to bellow out the Ten Commandments—although, we imagined, George might sport his own unique version, including “Read a book a day”. Minutes into the shoot he generously told us, “You can sleep here if you want”. Later, Jemma, one of the bookstore attendants we’d come to know, said she thought he was probably speaking only to me, not James and Josh.
I considered my chance to sleep in the bed where, George claimed, “the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti sleeps when he visits every year”. I asked George if Larry Ferly (as Julia Child claimed he was called when she met him in 1948) was planning a trip over any day soon. “Yes, next month,” he said. “We’re having a contest to see who can outlive the other and I’m winning.”
George was five years older than Ferlinghetti. The two nurtured a number of connections between their respective bookstores. Ferlinghetti’s City Lights in San Francisco opened in 1953, two years after S & Co. At the time, S & Co was still Le Mistral, named, said George, in honor of “the first girl I ever fell in love with”, whom he met shortly after he arrived in Paris in 1948 to study at the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill. A book series published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights is carried at S & Co, and the staff at both refer to themselves as “sister bookstores”. Ginsberg and other beat poets performed often at S & Co starting in the early 1960s. Not long ago, Ferlinghetti read from a new collection of his work to a standing-room-only crowd that spilled out into the street.
With the portrait of George in the can and the light fading, we sensed his energy for the camera was exhausted so we packed up and left, promising to come back soon. Downstairs, Sylvia seemed happy that it had finally worked out. We asked about her plans for the bookstore and she told us she intended to turn her attention to publishing, once the computer system was running smoothly and the inventory completed. We bought a first UK hardcover edition of James Thurber’s Further Fables For Our Time from the collectibles section.
Subsequent shoots found George more and more often confined to his apartment but still spirited in conversation. On one visit, we brought our daughter Madison and her friend Nettika. Living up to his reputation, George was immediately drawn to the young women. In an interview with the British newspaper The Independent he was once quoted as saying, “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel. And the girls who come in here are coming into a novel.” George informed us with a twinkle in his eye, that “the day I turn 100, I’m retiring”.
Remarkably, George almost made it to age 100, falling just two years short when he died on December 14, 2011, two days after his 98th birthday. He spent his last days at home, surrounded by photos of his friends, with his black dog Colette and his white cat Kitty by his side. Regal in exquisite deep purple silk pajamas, he sat propped up against red and lavender pillows covered by a paisley quilt, with his daughter close by providing all the happiness he could want. She read to him daily, satisfying his voracious desire to read “a book a day”—a recommendation he made to all the inhabitants of Hotel Tumbleweed. From his third floor retreat, George could listen to the voices of new authors reading their works, musicians playing their original music and the bells of Notre Dame wafting in. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.
Under Sylvia, Shakespeare & Company’s renaissance is now in full swing. Readings, workshops and music events are regularly scheduled. She’s launched S & Co’s Paris Literary Prize, a €10,000 award for a novella by an unpublished author. And since 2003, four glittering festivals have begun to attract galaxies of international literary stars back to Shakespeare’s little shop on the Seine.
37 rue de la Bûcherie, 5th, 01.43.25.40.93.
Turning the Page was originally published in the April 2012 issue of France Today