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Sometimes in Paris you get this remarkable feeling that you’re amongst famous ghosts from the past, sometimes you feel as though the simplest thing like a charming street has transported you back in time, and sometimes you wonder why it’s not how you’d hoped or thought it would be (now’s about the time that you should watch the movie “Midnight in Paris“).
I was curious to know what sort of feeling I’d be left with after visiting the famous “Shakespeare and Company” bookshop in Paris. And now, after making a few trips there, I think I finally have my answer…
…As you make your way to 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, with the river close by and the Notre Dame cathedral in view, you’ll find yourself in the overwhelming footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Actually that’s not true at all.
There are actually TWO Shakespeare and Company bookshops in Paris’s recorded history, two separate entities in two separate eras with two separate histories.
Most people figure this out by the time they arrive in Paris, as Wikipedia and any good guidebook will tell you the same. It was Sylvia Beach who started it all in the early twentieth century, with a bookstore and lending library popular with the “Lost Generation” of writers. It didn’t quite end with her though, for when she died in 1964, a colleague inherited the name for his very own bookshop in Paris, along with some of her private collection of books.
“The 1960’s to present day” Shakespeare and Company has a fascinating history of its own, with the late George Whitman at the forefront. Not only did his regular customers include the likes of Anais Nin and Allen Ginsberg, but he created quite the socialist refuge under that little roof, with book displays converting into beds after closing time, and writers welcome to stay for the simple cost of a short biography, one or two hours of work in the shop per day, and the promise to read a lot of books (books that would be vetted by Whitman’s keen eye…crime thrillers need not apply). Not to mention the Sunday tea sessions, poetry readings and more.
With a history like that, and a Canadian author who wrote a memoir based on the months he lived in the shop (“Time was Soft There“), I was full of naive notions before my visit, tempered by the reality that Whitman had died and his daughter now ran the shop (Sylvia Beach Whitman is her name, and it’s a much more clever name than “North West”). Maybe things would be different now, but not so different that I couldn’t travel back into the past…right? Right!
I thought it would be cool to swing by the shop to see a live performance, so I wandered my way over at seven p.m. (Toronto is for power-walking and Paris is for wandering, in my experience at least). The crowd was already gathering, and before too long, famed guitarist and songwriter Gary Lucas took the “stage” in front of the bookshop. Throughout the performance the crowd grew and grew, along with the number of jaws dropped in awe, as this man let his magic fingers tell story after story, with all the best notes played at mind-boggling speed.
It was a great way to start my journey at Shakespeare and Company.
But then…the crowd.
After the concert, too many people tried to squeeze their way into that tiny hole called a door. As I barely squeaked into the shop amidst body heat and American accents, the first thing I saw were stacks of modern books; today’s bestsellers, last year’s bestsellers, Harry Potter…it was slightly reminiscent of a Barnes and Noble, but hard to tell because the walls and ceilings and bookshelves felt so beautifully archaic.
The crowd was too thick to explore any further, so I resolved to make another visit, one where I’d make my way deeper in the back to find something better (it’s like grocery stores, where they put all the important stuff like milk and cheese in the back).
On my following visit the store was filled with tourists once again, but this time I managed to make it to the second floor. Here was the Childrens’ section and the library, a place where you could sit and read from leather-bound books all day long. Now that’s more like it. The first thing that struck me was George Whitman’s famous motto hung up on the wall, a simple token that transported me back in time, to the glory days of “angels in disguise” making their home in the shop. Next I saw a typewriter, which immediately brought me back to the writing nook that was used by actual residents in the shop, as recently as the early 2000’s. Only here the typewriter was on display atop a shelf. Like a museum artifact.
Next I saw a surprising real-life message board. It was filled with hundreds of love notes to the shop over the years, with people stating their country and date of visit, along with some special words about their experience at Shakespeare and Co. That was something I’d never even heard of before, and seeing those notes written by people from all over the world was pretty remarkable.
Even so, I got no sense at all of an organic presence of writers living in the shop (although I’ve heard that does still happen), but rather an overwhelming feeling that I was in the way of someone’s touristy experience, so I should probably get out or pick something to buy and get in the queue.
So I left the shop for a second time, now totally confused by my impressions.
Soon after, a fellow Ex-Pat writer told me about a writers’ group every Saturday at Shakespeare and Company. “Go to give feedback, go just to listen, or go and bring copies of your work for a critique.” As someone who had put all kinds of effort into forming a writers’ group in Toronto in 2009 only to watch it fizzle due to people’s lack of commitment, I was intrigued by this fully-formed group (and five Euros a session wasn’t bad for attending a writers’ group in an inspirational city such as this).
When I showed up on Saturday, my initial reaction was to cringe, when the shop was so crowded that they couldn’t let in more than three people at a time. It was like Best Buy during a “Black Friday” sale. I wonder what Hemingway would’ve thought of that. Luckily I was able to skip the queue and head straight upstairs to the library for the workshop.
In the next two hours I heard a lot of poetry and prose being read, and some really useful feedback being given. I chimed in a couple times, but mostly I was there to listen which actually proved to be invaluable (you wouldn’t think that feedback on a poem would be applicable to the first draft of my novel, but you’d be surprised!) After the workshop the writers all converged at a cheap watering hole, and even though I was late for a previous engagement so I couldn’t make it (oooh, I’m so popular!), I’m certain I’ll be back on a different Saturday.
Three visits, and three very different impressions. I’m sure my impressions will continue to grow, like if I see the next play performed outside the shop (I missed “Much Ado About Nothing“), or if I attend one of the many upcoming literary events.
I guess what I’ve learned then, is that time does change all things, but that doesn’t mean their value is diminished. Shakespeare and Company has been featured in books, articles and movies, and so change would’ve been inevitable with a level of exposure like that. I would never begrudge an establishment for achieving success, so even though Best-Buy-like measures are required at times and some of the shop feels like a museum, it’s managed to retain a good community, for those who are willing to participate. Now I’m reminded of what someone told me earlier this week: “I shouldn’t HAVE to make an effort to find a great community in Paris; it should already exist like it did a hundred years ago. But it doesn’t anymore.” (I might be paraphrasing a little). If you ask me, communities are built and maintained by people, so how would you ever tap into that without making any effort? Human interaction…try it sometime!
And so, the writing community in Paris continues to grow as I experience it; I’ve got “The Abbey Bookshop” for random conversations and aperitifs and meeting writers just like me, I’ve got two weekly open mics now, where a great group of people converge (“Spoken Word Paris” and “Paris Lit Up“), and I’ve got a great new place to get writing feedback at Shakespeare and Company.
2013 for a writer in Paris; not too shabby at all…
Hi there would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with? I’m going to
start my own blog soon but I’m having a tough time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something completely unique.
P.S Apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!
No problem! It’s a premium theme on WordPress, and I chose it because I wanted something different, and I liked how the posts are horizontal and you can slide through them; it’s called the “Shelf” theme, and I believe it was about $60 on WordPress. Hope that helps!