Shakespeare and Company has been on the top of my bookshop wish list for years, so when I finally set my eyes upon the iconic green and yellow shopfront on Rue de la Bûcherie it was love at first sight. Shakespeare and Co is an independent English language bookshop that has played host to a myriad of eclectic creatives over the past seventy years as the inadvertent home of the Anglo-American literary community in Paris. A treasure trove of coloured spines holding together musty pages and magical words, velvet covered chairs, painting and drawings, and wall to wall shelves with books squeezed into every possible nook and cranny.
Shakespeare and Co was established in 1951 by George Whitman, an American in Paris. Originally named Le Mistral, the name Shakespeare and Company came over a decade later in April 1962, quite poetically on the 400th Anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth – but also as an homage to Sylvia Beach, the founder of the original Shakespeare and Company bookstore that flourished between 1919 and 1941 as a meeting place for aspiring writers of the era – James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound were all frequent patrons. Sadly, the original Shakespeare and Co bookstore closed in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Paris and Sylvia Beach never reopened it following the war.
Although George Whitman’s version of Shakespeare and Co has reached cult status, it does owe much of that allure to the legacy of the original bookstore. Providing a communal meeting place for young aspiring creatives to intertwine, the literary culture that ensued has become legendary. Imagine rubbing shoulders with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, sharing a drink with Ernest Hemingway, or attending a literary salon hosted by Gertrude Stein. My time travel goals = Paris in 1920.
If only I could have my own Midnight in Paris moment. Sylvia Beach was quite an inertia breaker and literary maven herself, she sold (and even published) controversial novels that had been banned elsewhere, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and Ulysses by James Joyce.
I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations. — George Whitman
When George Whitman opened the bookstore on Rue de la Bûcherie in 1951, it struck a cord with a whole new generation of creatives – Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin to name but a few. While times had changed, some things remained the same – Shakespeare and Co possesses some kind of magnetism that attracts those wishing to challenge the status quo – from the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation and beyond.
George Whitman passed away in 2011 at the tender age of 98 years old. The bohemian tradition of Shakespeare and Co has moved into the future with George Whitman’s daughter taking over the reins. A lovely gesture, George named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman in honour of the original founder of the bookstore.
Each monastery had a frère lampier whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I have been doing this for fifty years. Now it is my daughter’s turn. — George Whitman
Located on the Left Bank of Paris across the street from Notre Dame and the Seine, you will easily stumble upon this charming bookshop even without going out of your way. If you search for Shakespeare and Co on Google Maps you may chuckle at the description – funky, legendary independent bookshop. That really does sum it up. It’s the perfect nook to relax and buy a couple of books to read during your travels. They even stamp your book to commemorate your purchase. I picked up a copy of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (a subtle nod to the Modernist origins of the shop) to read on the train from Paris to London. There is also a cafe next door that serves tea and coffee with outdoor tables where you can while away the afternoon in the sunshine with million dollar views of the River Seine.
You cannot take photos inside the shop out of respect for other readers, which is a lovely gesture really, but be sure to look out for the doorway inscribed with the words, “be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise” as you pass. George Whitman was inspired by this philosophy while travelling in Central America and instilled this same concept back home, offering writers, artists, and intellectuals a place to sleep, creating a sanctuary amongst the books.
These guests are called Tumbleweeds after the rolling thistles that “drift in and out with the winds of chance,” as George described. A sense of community and commune was very important to him — he referred to his shop as a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”
So, where would a literature lover choose to stay when in Paris? A cosy writer’s apartment in Saint Germain of course! Located on the top floor of an eighteenth century mansion in a quiet rue just 30 metres from the Seine. Our apartment was full of character and utterly chic. Catherine, our wonderful Parisian host put together a list of local secrets for us to discover during our stay. Her apartment was perfect for myself and my boyfriend, very intimate and romantic. The walls were lined with books and artwork, plus there was a lovely armchair by the window that my boyfriend claimed each afternoon at wine o’clock. Located just five minutes walk from Shakespeare and Co, this gorgeous apartment felt like an extension of George Whitman’s own vision – cosy, quirky, and filled with oodles of books.