Strolling up the rain-soaked Rue de la Bûcheri on the Left Bank of Paris, I attempted to close my umbrella despite the brisk wind challenging me to a duel. I wanted no distractions as I approached the 17th-century building that Shakespeare and Company occupies. Feeling the tingling of a long-wished-for dream, I rested my eyes first on the hand-hewn, green and yellow sign that told a hundred-year-old story. Crowds gathered in front of the old Paris bookshop windows and single door, cameras, and iPhones clicking away while the nearby Notre Dame bells tolled the hour.
Library carts overflowed with books that looked like they had been hastily pushed to the side for protection from the Paris drizzle. Those waiting to enter patiently browsed the new and old books. Others just passing by took their photos and moved along, unknowingly documenting an iconic Paris bookshop they would later learn about and wish they had taken the time to visit.
Once I crossed the shop’s threshold and stepped inside, that familiar “old book smell” filled my nostrils. It is a scent that some would call musty. I consider it heavenly because it represents a lifetime or several lifetimes of imagination, with the ability to evoke a medley of emotions, introducing us to old worlds, new worlds, and beyond.
Taking my time, I wandered through the shop’s quirky ground-floor rooms with their low ceilings, narrow halls, and endearing, higgledy-piggledy book stacks. I reveled in the history of this shop
The Bookshop Second Floor Welcoming
As I ambled up the red-painted staircase to visit the second floor, I browsed the photo-lined walls and took in the well-worn steps, a testament to the shop’s age and its many visitors. Reaching the top, I was intrigued by a sign over the library door that read, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”
This proverb embodies the soul of this famed English-language bookshop, as well as the soul of its two owners.
I say two because Shakespeare and Company has had two famous lives – the first created by Sylvia Beach, an American idealist, and the current shop by another American, George Whitman.
Although every literary scholar and English major knows the history behind these two famous bookshops, the average tourist tends to fuse the two separate identities into one. I admit I was in the latter group. Before my visit, like others, I mistakenly assumed, after watching the movie Midnight in Paris, that the original owner Sylvia Beach had hosted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and the Lost Generation in the shop’s current location.
My initial disappointment in discovering that Ernest Hemingway had never set foot in this shop melted away as I delved deeper into the shop’s fascinating history.
Although there are two distinct stories to tell, there is a definite and strong connection between the first Shakespeare and Company and today’s iconic book shop on Rue de la Bûcheri. Both are amazing and romantic stories, taking place in different times but with a strong common thread that continues to this day.
History of Shakespeare and Company Paris Bookshop
The original Shakespeare and Company was created in 1919 by the formidable Sylvia Beach. Sylvia hosted the Lost Generation of writers in her bookshop and lending library at its famous rue de l’Odéon location.
Beach knew nothing about business when she started the shop, but throughout the 1920s and 30s got to know then-aspiring writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. It was a time when no one in America would publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and Sylvia agreed to publish it. Beach gained the reputation as “the Mother Hen” of this talented group of artists. Her shop became their Living Room for discussions on writing, the arts, politics, and more. She hosted readings and social occasions for writers. She also provided support, advice, free books, and a helping hand to the young artists of the 1920s and 30s.
During WW 2, when Beach refused to sell her last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German officer, the officer threatened to come back and confiscate her complete inventory of books. Beach somehow managed to hide every last one of her books in a fourth-floor apartment and fled the shop, never to re-open.
Rekindling This Paris Bookshop
In 1946 George Whitman, an American known for his free spirit, eccentricity, and generosity, came to Paris on the GI Bill with not much more than a few dollars in his pocket.
Whitman initially ran a small bookshop in an old hotel room in Paris. Encouraged by book enthusiasts and writers to open an official book shop, in 1951, he opened an Anglo book shop at the current Shakespeare and Company’s location under the name “Le Mistral.”
Whitman knew of and idolized the legendary Sylvia Beach. He desired to recreate her practice of nurturing the literary set. George opened his doors to the Paris-based writers of the time, including Henry Miller, Anais Nin, James Baldwin, and From Here to Eternity author James Jones. The bookshop emerged as the gathering place for Expat literary life in Paris.
From Le Mistral to Shakespeare and Company
Whitman and Beach first met at a book signing for author Richard Wright at Whitman’s Le Mistral. From this meeting. a friendship flourished. Impressed by Whitman’s passion for his work at Le Mistral, in 1958, Beach offered to bequeath Whitman her shop’s name. Thrilled by her offer, in April 1964, Whitman renamed the shop Shakespeare and Company. Not only did he honor Sylvia Beach, but it also coincided with the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth.
George Whitman’s Credo
As a tribute to the generosity he encountered during his past journeys, George’s credo for the bookshop was “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” He provided a warm bed amongst the books to all types of aspiring writers, artists, and intellectuals who needed a place to stay. He affectionately referred to them as his Tumbleweeds. Guests were requested to read a book a day, help out in the shop, and write a single-page autobiography for George’s archives to earn their keep. Throughout the years, over 30,000 writers have enjoyed Whitman’s generous hospitality.
Whitman’s present-day “Shakespeare’s” occupies a prime piece of Paris real estate on the left bank, facing the Seine, with a birds-eye view of the Notre Dame cathedral from its second-floor windows.
Over the years, Whitman received offers to purchase from many investors, including boutique hoteliers. Each time Whitman’s response was a resounding NO! He cared more about the community than the temptation of enormous profits a sale would bring. I’m certain that the many thousands of visitors who have crossed his threshold appreciate his principles, this writer included.
“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
This quote personifies George’s passion and ongoing commitment throughout his ownership of Shakespeare and Company. It also explains the butterflies I felt during my entire visit here.
Find Your Story at Shakespeare And Company
Although my dreams of experiencing Hemingway’s spirits as I wandered Shakespeare and Company’s old floors were not realized, I discovered a much more compelling story.
This iconic bookshop began with a desire to welcome and nurture writers and readers of all kinds. It continues to love and care for them with the passion of both its owners. Today young Tumbleweeds can still be found at Shakespeare and Company, exchanging ideas with each other, working in the shop, and seeking out a free night’s rest.
In 2006, the baton passed to George Whitman’s daughter, who continues her father’s legacy “to nurture the real soul of the shop,” which she believes comes from the writers’ programs, lectures, readings, and many events organized throughout the year.
And her name? Sylvia Beach Whitman.
About Guest Blogger Linda Funay McCarley
A lifelong traveler and world citizen, Linda Funay McCarley is a freelance travel writer with a passionate curiosity for Off the Path destinations at home and around the globe. She loves to learn about local culture, history, art and architecture, food and wine, and little-known facts that make each destination unique. Through her travel stories, Linda hopes to inspire others to be curious about the world and Just Go!