Shakespeare and Co is an independent English language bookshop that has hosted a myriad of creatives over the past seventy years as the inadvertent home of the Anglo-American literary community in Paris. A treasure trove of coloured spines, velvet chairs, and wall to wall shelves with books squeezed into every possible nook and cranny.
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.
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 1962, quite poetically on the 400th Anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, but also as an homage to Sylvia Beach.
Beach founded the original Shakespeare and Company bookstore that flourished in Paris between 1919 and 1941 after becoming 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.
Although George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Co has reached cult status, it does owe much of that allure to the legacy of the original bookstore as a locale for young creatives to intertwine. Imagine rubbing shoulders with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, sharing a drink with Ernest Hemingway, or attending a literary salon hosted by Gertrude Stein. Reading about the original bookshop reminds me of the era depicted in Midnight in Paris – time travel goals!
Sylvia Beach, inertia breaker and literary maven sold (and published) controversial novels that had been banned elsewhere, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and Ulysses by James Joyce.
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. While times had changed, some things remained the same. Shakespeare and Co possesses a 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 age of 98. The bohemian tradition of Shakespeare and Co was entrusted in George Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, who was named Sylvia Beach Whitman in honour of the founder. “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter. 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
Located on the Left Bank of Paris across the street from Notre Dame and the Seine, you will easily find this lovely literary institution. If you search for Shakespeare and Co on Google Maps you may chuckle at the description – funky, legendary independent bookshop, but that really does sum it up. It’s the perfect nook to relax and buy a couple of books to read during your travels. When you buy a book, they stamp the title page to commemorate your purchase. I bought Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf for my train journey to London, a subtle nod to the Modernist origins of the bookshop.
Shakespeare and Company is separated into two sections. The main bookshop and an antiquarian bookshop right next door that sells rare copies of books, such as first and early editions. 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 your new book.
You cannot take photos inside the bookshop out of respect for those reading, 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 and instilled this concept in the bookshop – 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”.
Despite the legendary status and popularity of Shakespeare and Co, it has retained a sense of originality and a heart that beats with the spirit of Sylvia Beach, George Whitman, and the eclectic mix of tumbleweeds who have sought refuge within the walls of this beautiful cultural institution.
Shakespeare & Co
37 Rue de la Bûcherie
Paris, France 75005
Telephone: 00 33 (0) 1 43 25 40 93.
Main Bookshop: Monday to Saturday, from 10am to 10pm, Sunday, from 12:30pm to 8pm.
Antiquarian: Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 7pm.