After leaving Saint Michel, I walked through some truly horrendous back streets turned Disney-fied tourist trap version of Paris over to Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
On the ground floor (no photos allowed), it’s bursting with English-language books, filled to the rafters. American and French bibliophiles who are used to cookie cutter, sterile, impersonal Barnes and Nobles or Fnac, respectively, will, I believe, find Shakespeare and Company refreshingly full of personality and with a definite point of view.
And not to confuse you more than necessary, bookstores in French are les libraries and libraries in French are les bibliothèques. Actually Shakespeare and Company is both, and more than that.
Carefully negotiate the narrow steps up to the first floor to find a little piece of awesome. At the very top of the stairwell, you land in the children’s section. Amongst the adorable copies of Le Petit Prince, Madeline, Winnie the Pooh and other children’s classics, there’s a tiny reading alcove set into the wall where, when I was there, a pair of sisters, in their late teens or early 20s, were reading their favorite girlhood story to each other. Leaving them to their reverie, I rounded another corner and found this solarium of toys.
It took all the restraint I could muster to refrain from crawling out of the window and picking up several of these toys, a menagerie of plastic playthings frozen in mid-stride, mid-flight, mid-jump. They won’t miss a little goblin or gnome or velociraptor, right? (I kid.)
Hunkered down in an old leather chair, I could hear the sounds of the kids and their parents in the adjacent room, while patrons negotiated the creaky, narrow stairwell. Aside from the children’s section, the books upstairs are these ancients whose spines are cracked in multiple places, if not altogether falling apart, and the pages are yellowed and the typeset has fallen into disuse and they’ve acquired what Ray Bradbury called “perfume.” I learned later, this top floor is the previously private library of the late owner, George Whitman. Charukesi Ramadurai, in her article “Angel in disguise” published in The Hindu, describes wonderfully the story of how this place came to be, how Mr. Whitman built not just a bookstore but a community of literature lovers and safe haven for wayward writers.
George Whitman, 98 when he died last December, had managed the bookshop for close to 60 years. He was the patron saint of the struggling writer in Paris, having provided a bed for 50,000 people in that time. He called them the tumbleweeds, giving them a place to stay once he approved of their initial manuscript. In exchange for this, they were expected to work in the shop for two hours, read and write everyday. And I am sure that the tumbleweeds slacking off must have withered under the baleful eyes of the Notre Dame gargoyles just around the corner.
As I myself have been fortunate to have many friends, new and old, take me generously into their homes, lives, families and stories, I very much respect this openness of spirit and kindness of heart. Ramadurai’s article notes that Mr. Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, has taken up the torch in her father’s stead, with workshops, readings and possibly an artists’ commune outside Paris to come. Fingers crossed.
The typewriter alcove.
Naturally, bookstores should have places dedicated to reading AND writing. It’s a whole lovely ecocycle/circle-of-life thing. Sadly, not many independent brick-and-mortar bookstores, that noble, dying breed, set aside dedicated spaces for writing, and fewer still have tiny rooms complete with antique Hermès typewriters in them for writers’ use. Someday when I’m rich and famous – or, at least, no longer without permanent residence – I’ll have me one of these puppies.
Of course the typewriter is there for anyone’s use. And if that alone isn’t awesome, in this little crawlspace illumined by strings of Christmas lights, Shakespeare and Co.’s customers and visitors leave little love notes. You can read in different languages, how much they love this store, how much they love Paris, how they love books and writing. I could have stayed in there all day, reading little notes, noticing how inventive people could be with their choice of stationery: restaurant checks of meals long ago digested, used Metro tickets, a scrap of something, a Poloroid… And everything hanging on for dear life, fastened to the wall and to each other with hair clips, bobby pins, Band-aids, pushpins. All in the name of love of literature.
I’d already been in Shakespeare and Company for an hour, maybe two, looking at the old books, reading them, smelling them, when someone started playing a pensive, wistful ditty on the old piano. I wish I had asked the anonymous musician what song it was, or was better up on my classical to be able to recognize it. I was paralyzed with the beauty of the moment.
The sound carried wonderfully through to where I sat, old volumes and their gold-leafed titles providing a perfect balance of echo chamber and damper. And without trying, the question I needed to answer is asked and then answered:
In a city and in a world, rather, where the subject matter available are innumerable and where the task has already been carried out by those who are leagues more talented than me, why? Why write?
I hadn’t written in too many weeks. And writing was, like, the reason for this trip. I was starting to feel intimidated by the whole enterprise now. Feeling like I came so far, I risked so much, and now I’m stuck.
And the answer that came over the last bars of that unknown sonata: Write because life is too short and too good not to write it down – yes, even when it’s sad, damning, tragic or nonsensical… Better when the details are savored in the moment, and best when they are shared with a friend or with a stranger or if only with one person but your older self five or ten years from now.
Shakespeare and Company, 37 rue de la Bûcherie, is located in the 5th arrondisement of Paris, on the south side of the Seine directly opposite the Nôtre Dame de Paris (better known as the Left Bank). Routinely, except in August, they host author readings. In addition to the library upstairs and the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company also has an antiquarian books section. Open daily until 11 pm.
P.S. BuzzFeed seems to be convinced that bookstores will be going away in the hilarious article, “36 Reasons Why We Will Miss Bookstores.” But, the article’s original title was “Reason Why We Love Bookstores” (as evidenced in the link). I like that optimistic first instinct.