Shakespeare and Company is certainly one of the most famous bookstores in the world. It was opened in 1919 by a young American Woman, Sylvia Beach, and eventually became a prominent place for the artistically minded American expats who were hanging out in Paris in the 1920s — people like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, coined “the lost generation” by Gertrude Stein. Beach also famously publishing James Joyce’s highly polemical Ulysses, now widely acknowledged to be one of the most influential novels of the 2oth century.
The original Shakespeare & Co closed in 1941, during the German occupation. The on which one can see and visit today, a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame, opened in 1951 under the name of Le Mistral. The owner, George Whitman, eventually changed the name to honour Beach’s store. Like the original Shakespeare & Co, the new one also became a kind of refuge for a community of edgy young American writers of the period — those who would become members of the Beat generation. Even today, the store — now managed by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia (the name loops the loop rather perfectly) — apparently houses several budding writers who are there to read and write, provided they help out in the store for a couple of hours each day. There was an excellent article about the whole business in The Guardian a few years ago.
Disappointment was probably inevitable when I visited Shakespeare and Company myself at the beginning of the year. The place is too legendary and the literary references too great; how could a bookshop possibility live up to such a magical reputation? It does, in a way: the elegant, worn facade; the atmospheric maze of tiny rooms and cramped stairs; the clutter of typewriters and posters and people staring smartly at the shelves; and the books, of course — books, books everywhere, piles of them on the floor, on the tables, mountains of them climbing up to the ceiling and arching over the door frames, like a cluttered cave of paper. The problem is the people; Shakespeare and Co has become the ultimate hipster tourist destination in Paris. Forget spending a comfortable half hour in the reading room crammed with used books (for consultation only) upstairs; the incessant come and go of ogling, carefully outfitted twenty-somethings is much too irritating.
I wanted to be charmed by the bookshop and unfortunately I came out mainly disappointed, and then frustrated by my disappointment. The only comfort, I suppose, is that I was myself part of the ogling, whispering crowd. I was as much an annoying voyeur as they were, as much of a hipster looking for a culture fix, even if I think I deserved it more than they do! I even bought the Shakespeare & Co tote… Although I didn’t stay very long in the bookshop, from what I saw they had a good selection of new books and interesting staff picks. I also came out with a copy Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which, being about bookshops, mentions Shakespeare and Co quite a lot. It was a fitting purchase.
In the end, the time spent browsing the green stands of the bouquinistes on the banks of the Seine nearby, where I found a yellowed NRF edition of Saint Exupéry’s Terre des Hommes, turned out to be an altogether more pleasing — and parisian — experience.