In the past two weeks I have had the absolute pleasure of traveling through Rome and Berlin with a close friend and then Paris with my mother. We discovered each city largely on foot and every now and then would wander across something precious and perfect that I can’t help but write about, if for no one else, then myself; for I would hate to forget their names, or what I loved about them.
Shakespeare and Company was one such place. Located on Rue de la Bûcherie in the 5th arrondissement on the Left Bank in Paris, Shakespeare & Co is an English bookstore that over the years, has become nothing short of an institution. With a steadfast philosophy of “Give what you can, take what you need” Shakespeare & Co is somewhat of a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” where aspiring writers and artists can stay in exchange for working at the shop. As a result its not just the books that tell stories but the people themselves.
The young man helping you find a book may have an Irish accent while his friend/roommate/co-worker/fellow writer at the cash register speaks with a distinctly American twang. ‘What brought them here?’ I wondered to myself as I watched them interact so comfortably with each other. ‘How long have they stayed? How long will they stay? Will their bonds last outside the walls of this place so unchanged by the world outside it? Will they find love and companionship in each other?’
I was enraptured as soon as I walked through their little green doors. Books stacked from floor to ceiling; old and new, hard and soft copies, limited editions, new editions, some signed by the authors themselves. Young writers from around the globe walked around the store that was now their home, helping people find books, and constantly re-arranging and re-organizing for they found order where I saw chaos.
Upstairs were the reading libraries which consisted of old, worn sofas and arm chairs in quaint little nooks and crannies. Perhaps it was in one of those corners that the idea of “curling up with a good book” was born. Or at least it felt that way because it was certainly the epitome of the idea. There was a book club meeting going on in the fiction reading room which I peeked in on, and thought of my friends back in New York who are doing the same thing now. And I fancied myself a novelist of another time while clack-clacking on the typewriter in the little make shift booth made out of pieces of wood and decorated with fairy lights.
I chose a single book, The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (5 Euro for a used copy), and made my way to the cash register where I couldn’t help but pick up a Shakespeare & Company notebooks. God knows I am a sucker for a pretty notebook. Sigh.
Whether you are a book worm or not, the place is worth a visit. My dad frequented it as a young diplomat in Paris in the ’80s. My friend met and befriended Jonathan Safran Foer there. And since it opened its doors in 1951, it has seen the likes of Henry Miller, Richard Wright, Lawrence Durrel, Anaïs Nin and Allen Ginsburg who have at some point in their lives dropped by for tea and a pancake with the shop’s owner, George Whitman.
I plan to return to Paris and Shakespeare & Co one day. I have no idea when that will be, but when I do I know with certainty that while Paris may seem changed, Shakespeare & Co will be much the same.