When in France, do as the French do — or at least that is what I told myself during my trip to France this summer. This included eating crepes and croissants every day, stopping at a cafe for aperitifs and espresso and going to all of the French-affiliated hangouts, excluding one bookstore in particular: Shakespeare and Company.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I took an American Modernist Writers in Paris course, consisting of autobiographical novels of some of America’s favorite expatriates, including Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Baldwin. It was so interesting to learn about some of my favorite writers and their experiences in one of my favorite cities.
What struck me most wasn’t a writer, but a bookstore owner. Sylvia Beach, an American, founded the first Shakespeare and Company: an English shop that was half-bookstore and half-lending library that many of the great writers frequented.
The bookstore served as a meeting place for French and American writers and also helped publish modern literature like James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922. Shakespeare and Company is located on the Left Bank of the Seine River in the heart of Saint-Germain. The original bookstore was closed in the 1940’s due to German occupation in France during World War II. Ten years later, another English-language bookstore opened by American George Whitman, under the name of Le Mistral, serving as the new hub of literary culture in bohemian Paris. The shop was modeled after Beach’s bookshop and was eventually given the original name. Whitman founded the bookstore with the motto “be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” This motto paved the way for longterm guests, known as tumbleweeds, to come and go as they pleased as long as they read a book a day, helped out at the store and wrote a single-page autobiography for the store archives.
The shop continued to grow, holding beds for housing upstairs and hosting the Paris Voices headquarters. To this day, the store is still run in a similar manner by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, named after the original owner.
This extensive bookstore was the first on my list, besides the Eiffel Tower, when I visited Paris. From the outside, it looks unassuming, but once inside, this quaint, historical shop is filled to the brim with books of all types. The shop holds activities, like Sunday tea, poetry readings, writers’ meetings and a place for young writers to stay. Upstairs, one could find antique furniture and typewriters, with old books lining the wall and the main window over-looking the Seine River.
If you think I was anything but calm when entering this store, you would be sadly mistaken. My inner-English nerd came out as I spent an hour and a half scrounging the store for any traces of the American writers I learned about. In the midst of buying a book, poster and bag, I also managed to take a selfie with the store itself. Shakespeare and Company may not have been inherently French, but the history behind it and its influence on American writers is enough to warrant a freakout…or at least a visit when in Paris.