Visiting Shakespeare and Company has been on my wish list for years, so when I finally approached the iconic green and yellow shopfront on Rue de la Bûcherie, it was love at first sight. Shakespeare and Company 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 entering, a treasure trove of colourful spines, wall to wall shelves, and cosy reading nooks welcome you. First up, take a deep breath and reflect on how many of your organs you will need to sell on the black market to pay for all the beautiful books you will want to buy, as well as the exorbitant excess luggage fee that invariably comes along with buying a stack of books in Paris (unless you are a Parisian) when you’re living out of a suitcase for six weeks.
The current Shakespeare and Co bookshop was established in 1951 by George Whitman, an American in Paris, but 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, the foundress of the original Shakespeare & Company, was 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 & Co became the heart of the expatriate literary world in Paris, providing 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, with the name Shakespeare and Company coming over a decade later in 1962, quite poetically on the 400th Anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. The spirit and legacy of Sylvia Beach and the original bookstore inspired the name change, and the allure of her little English language bookshop remained. Attracting intellectuals on the outer edges of the status quo, from the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation and beyond, the new Shakespeare and Co struck a chord with a whole new generation of creatives, including the likes of Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin.
Located on the Left Bank of Paris, literally across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral and the Seine, you will find this literary institution. If you search for Shakespeare and Co on Google Maps you may chuckle at the description – funky, legendary independent bookshop, which does sum things up perfectly. Providing an ideal nook to relax and buy a couple of books to read during your travels, the bookstore lures 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 a cafe next door with outdoor tables where you can relax in the sunshine.
Be sure to look out for the store motto inscribed above the doorway that leads in to 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 this 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, named after 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. At first glance, the shop does feel overwhelmingly inundated by tourists, but the hoardes filter in and out with mostly genuine customers left scouring the shelves. You cannot take photos inside the bookshop out of respect for those reading and searching for books, which also stops the bustling bookshop from becoming too much of a circus or attracting those just coming in to capture their Instagram shot.
George Whitman passed away in 2011 at the ripe old age of 98, 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 beautiful cultural institution. The bookshop continues to flourish with an array of literary events taking place, although it will never again be a breeding pot of emerging writers and artists, given how popular and busy the store has become.
To finish, I will leave you with the wise and knowing words of George Whitman, who said he “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”.
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 10 am to 10 pm, Sunday, from 12:30 pm to 8 pm.
Antiquarian: Tuesday to Saturday, from 11 am to 7 pm.