Today, Shakespeare and Company is a refuge for people for whom a Kindle could never be a substitute for the glorious tactile pleasure of picking up a chunk of paper and ink. Books practically hold up the shop’s walls, with Jane Austen crammed next to Paul Auster, or sometimes Iain Banks, depending on how much shuffling has taken place.
And in the very few places where there are no books, there are beds. In exchange for two hours’ work a day, a one-page biography of their lives and the promise to read a book a day, writers — the Tumbleweeds, as Whitman calls them — have a bed and a story to tell for the rest of their lives.
There’s no advance booking, and, with only six Tumbleweeds allowed to stay at a time, many interested boarders have to try several times before a spot opens up. But for all the competition, the accommodations are sparse: There’s only one bathroom that’s inconveniently located on the third floor and shared by all the guests. Staying at the shop for any length of time means becoming intimately acquainted with one of Paris’ 18 public baths or, as one former Tumbleweed put it, “freeing yourself from the chains of modern hygiene.” Though there is a kitchen, the bathroom also features a handwritten list of places that give out free food in Paris.
“[George] wanted to create a refuge in the world for people like him — people who don’t find an easy place in traditional society, people who wander, people who are seeking, people who have dreams and who need a place to allow those dreams to germinate,” says Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian writer and reporter who stayed at the shop for five months in 2000, eventually writing a book about his experiences entitled Time Was Soft There. Mercer credits Whitman with making Shakespeare and Company the sanctuary that it is. If books are Shakespeare and Company’s lifeblood, then George Whitman is its beating heart.
Hearts, though, eventually wear out. Whitman is 96. And in the last two decades, Shakespeare and Company has begun to show its age as well. One contributor was a fire in the early 1990s, which destroyed a huge number of books and left scorch marks that are still visible on the exposed beams of the second-floor ceiling.
That’s where Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, comes in. In 2004, barely out of university, she came to Paris to live with her father for a summer. Sylvia — who was named after Shakespeare and Company’s Sylvia Beach — was born in the city, just around the corner from the shop, and lived there until the age of 6. Her mother and Whitman had divorced, however, and she and her mother moved to the United Kingdom. She came that summer, she says, to get to know her father.
“I was very intimidated by him and the whole scene here,” she remembers. “He’s very eccentric and very bohemian and the whole thing. He’s very spontaneous; you never know what he’s going to say. It could be charming, [or] it could be cruel.”
But she also found him “struggling,” she says, to maintain the shop. So she stayed, and, as Mercer and others close to the shop say, she saved its soul. Sylvia took over for her father in 2006 and began the onerous process of modernizing a literary legend. The dusty stacks of books still remain, but they’re joined by a computerized till, a credit card machine and a phone. Before that, Sylvia says, they had to place orders with publishers at the pay phone down the street.
“It feels like a little revolution,” Sylvia says. And like most revolutions, it hasn’t been easy. Many of those who have made a pilgrimage to the store, or have slept there, or have even just wandered in and spent an afternoon reading, feel an ownership over the place. “When we got in the phone, people were making a fuss,” Sylvia says. “When we put in the computer, people said, ‘OK, I feel like I’m at a bank.’ ”
George has largely retired to his flat above the shop. He makes few appearances in the store, but when he does, it’s always interesting. Sometimes, he comes down in his pajamas — like he did when Bill Clinton stopped by. On one recent visit, George thumped into the shop carrying a bowl of stew, accompanied by a cheerful black dog named Colette and dressed in a paisley jacket, a paisley shirt and a paisley tie. He proceeded to camp out in one of the shop’s salvaged theater chairs before getting into a row with one of his friends and thumping back upstairs.
Even without Whitman in the shop every day, Shakespeare and Company remains true to his vision. Sylvia has maintained the shop’s custom of inviting writers, published or not, to read from their works. The shop’s legacy has attracted some marquee names, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Paul Auster, Dave Eggers and Jeanette Winterson. In 2003, Sylvia organized the first Shakespeare and Company literary festival, an event that attracted volunteers, writers and readers from around the world. Since then, FestivalandCo. has become a biennial tradition. This year, from June 18 to 20, the shop will explore “Storytelling and Politics” with a roster of authors that will no doubt be impressive.
But above all, the tradition Sylvia is most proud to uphold is the store’s penchant for encouraging the writer and reader in all its visitors. “We get some young American boys coming because they want to be the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald,” Sylvia says. “And I think that’s really magical.”