Literary minds the world over flock to Paris’ Shakespeare and Company, an institution that’s part bookshop, part hotel and part muse.Across the Seine River from the Notre Dame Cathedral, past the souvenir shops selling miniature Eiffel Towers and faux watercolors, there lives a piece of literary history: the fabled Shakespeare and Company bookstore. It’s a place that Henry Miller called a “wonderland of books.” It’s where Allen Ginsberg once read from his epic poem, “Howl.” And it’s where thousands of famous (and not so famous) writers, poets and novelists have read, written and even slept.
“What Shakespeare and Company represents is everything I love about life,” says Michael Smith, author of The Giro Playboy and host of BBC4’s Citizen Smith. Smith spent a week last October sleeping in the bookstore’s writer’s studio as part of the writer-in-residence program. Every day, with a view of the towers of Notre Dame, he sat down to write. And each evening, before going to sleep on a tiny cot wedged between stacks of books, he drank good French wine in the company of people who, like Smith, liked to talk about books.
“It represents to me an oasis of creativity in a world of Starbucks and [bull],” Smith says. “It’s an oasis of everything we love most about our dreams of poetry and romanticism.”
It isn’t just Smith who feels this way; the shop has become legendary among the literary community. As a bookstore, it has had two equally fantastic lives. The original Shakespeare and Company was an English bookstore opened in 1919 on Rue de l’Odéon by an American, Sylvia Beach. A bohemian idyll of a shop, it played a starring role in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and was the place to go in the 1920s and ’30s to buy or borrow banned books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In 1941, Beach chose to shutter the shop rather than give up her last copy of Finnegans Wake to an occupying German officer.
Ten years later, Shakespeare and Company was reincarnated with the help of another idealistic American, George Whitman — a native of Salem, Mass., who found himself in Paris after the end of World War II with no desire to return home yet. A book-seller by trade, Whitman decided to open an English-language bookstore called Le Mistral in a crumbling 17th-century building in the Fifth Arrondissement on the Left Bank. In 1964, he renamed it Shakespeare and Company, in homage to Beach’s shop.
Where Beach’s bookstore was the haunt of the Lost Generation, Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company became the stomping ground of some of the 20th century’s most influential writers and poets and a touchstone for the Beat generation. Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin were frequent patrons; Nin allegedly left her will under Whitman’s bed. William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti slept in the shop on mattresses between encroaching stacks of books. James Baldwin and Richard Wright gave readings on the shop’s low-ceilinged second floor. And as the neighborhood around it transformed from a warren of dirty, winding streets and slums into a warren of tourist traps selling Parisian refrigerator magnets and berets, Shakespeare and Company became what Whitman calls “the rag and bone shop of the heart.”