Visiting Shakespeare and Company in Paris has been on my wish list for years, so when I approached 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 in the heart of Paris, known for the myriad of illustrious creatives who have frequented the bookstore over the past seventy years.
Upon entry, a treasure trove of colourful spines, wall to wall shelves, and cosy reading nooks welcome you as you take a deep sigh. A few initial thoughts came to mind almost immediately as I gazed upon the sight in front of me. First, how many organs will I need to sell on the black market to pay for all the beautiful books I want to buy and how will I cart 47 new books around Europe for the next six weeks.
The current Shakespeare and Co bookshop was established in 1951 by George Whitman, an American in Paris. Yet, to fully appreciate the history of this fabled bookstore, we must first rewind to 1919, when a young female entrepreneur, bookseller, and publisher opened a bookshop in St.-Germain-des-Prés. Sylvia Beach was the foundress of the original Shakespeare and Company, a literary maven who sold and published books, including controversial novels that were banned elsewhere, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and Ulysses by James Joyce.
Shakespeare and Company became the heart of the expatriate literary world in Paris, as a meeting place for writers and 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, who were all frequent patrons of Beach’s progressive liberal bookstore.
Beach’s Shakespeare and Co bookstore closed in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Paris and Sylvia Beach never reopened it. A decade later in 1951, when George Whitman opened a bookstore on Rue de la Bûcherie, it was known as Le Mistral; the bookstore was renamed Shakespeare and Company a decade later in 1962, quite poetically on the 400th Anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. The spirit and legacy of Sylvia Beach’s little bookstore inspired Whitman, whose own bookshop attracted a whole new generation of creative intellectuals, from the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation. The new Shakespeare and Company struck a chord with the likes of Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin.
You will find this literary institution the Left Bank, adjacent to Notre Dame Cathedral and the Seine. If you search for Shakespeare and Company on Google Maps you may chuckle at the description – funky, legendary independent bookshop, which does sum it up perfectly. An ideal nook to relax and gather a couple of books to read during your travels, Shakespeare and Co lures bookish people from all corners of the globe. When you buy a book, the bookseller will stamp the title page to commemorate your purchase. I bought a copy of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf to read on 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, including first and early editions. Given the popularity of the bookshop, there is also a cafe next door with outdoor tables where you can drink tea and coffee and read.
Be sure to look out for the store motto inscribed above the doorway that leads into the reading room, “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise”. George Whitman was inspired by this philosophy while travelling and wanted to instil the concept in his bookshop by offering writers, artists, and intellectuals a sanctuary amongst the books and a place to sleep, in return for some help around the store. These guests were known as the Tumbleweeds, reminiscent of the rolling thistles that “drift in and out with the winds of chance,” as George once quipped. Shakespeare & Co has always been a creative commune of sorts, with George referring to his shop as a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” that has hosted more than 30,000 tumbleweeds.
Despite the legendary status and popularity of Shakespeare and Co, it has retained a sense of originality and authenticity. Upon arrival, the shop does feel inundated by tourists, but the hordes filter in and out with genuine customers left scouring the shelves. You cannot take photos inside the bookshop out of respect for those reading and searching for books, protecting the bustling bookshop from becoming too much of a circus.
George Whitman passed away at the ripe old age of 98 in 2011, entrusting the bohemian tradition of his bookstore to his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, who was named in honour of the original Shakespeare and Company foundress. I’m sure both George and Sylvia watch over the store alongside the eclectic mix of tumbleweeds who once sought refuge within the walls of this cultural sanctuary. The bookshop continues to flourish, albeit in a different manner to before.
I will finish this post with the wise and knowing words of George Whitman, who created a 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”.
Shakespeare & Co
Rue de la Bûcherie