For the next several weeks, the editor will be gallivanting all over Morocco. Rather than give you, our Dear Readers, time off, she decided to climb into the WayBack Machine and pull out some favorite posts from long ago. Not Reruns, not Leftovers, but tasty treats to savor again. This time it’s Susan’s nostalgic 2013 trip to Paris, in particular to the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company, with her granddaughter Lily. Enjoy! And feel free to add on to the many comments. Susan loves comments.
About this time last summer, my 10 year old granddaughter, Lily, decided that Gran (me) needed to take her to Paris, because, she said, “I need to see the Eiffel Tower before I am 12.” She made this announcement as if it were the most logical thing in the world and was so completely earnest, she sold me immediately, and we started making plans.
We flew to France the final weekend in May, encountering rain and unexpectedly chilly weather, but FRENCH rain and weather, right? So, we soldiered on. By the end of our week-long stay, we were experts on the Metro and the streets surrounding our area of Rue Cler. We visited many of the treasures of Paris—monuments, gardens, museums—taking a zillion photos with our little digital cameras. But the highlight of all we saw, from St. Chappelle and Notre Dame to the Tuileries Garden and the Louvre, was a tiny part of Paris with a quirky history all its own—the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. I should explain that Lily has inherited voracious reading genes from her grandmother and consumes books at a pretty scary rate. By the time we visited the store, she had already read the two books brought from home and needed replenishment! First, a little background…
Sylvia Beach founded the original Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank of Paris in 1919, and her store was a haven for many of the great expatriate writers of the time—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Eliot—the so-called Lost Generation. Beach not only encouraged and supported all writers regardless of nationality, she is famous for having published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else would touch it. The store thrived for many years until WWII and the Nazi occupation of Paris, and she was forced to close her doors. She was interned in a prison camp for six months, and although she survived, she never reopened the store.
In 1951, George Whitman, a native of New Jersey and rabid bibliophile, opened the present-day store, still on the Left Bank, just a stone’s throw across the Seine from Notre Dame. In homage to Sylvia Beach, he endeavored to make it as much like its predecessor as possible. One of his earliest supporters was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, an American poet and the founder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and among his first visitors were noted authors James Baldwin, William Styron, Henry Miller, Richard Wright, and Anais Nin, who, like his other customers, were free to borrow books as well as buy them. From the beginning, Whitman assumed that some of the writers would stay there in the bookstore as they continued to write and commune with other writers, and in every single room, there are pallets for after-hours rest. This practice has continued until the present day with young writers agreeing to work in the store a certain number of hours in exchange for room and board and a place to write. There is a wonderful book entitled Time Was Soft There, which fully depicts the everyday life of the people lucky enough to be chosen to live there. If you want to delve further into the life of this amazing place, I highly recommend it. When Whitman died in 2011 at the age of 98, his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, assumed ownership. (Sylvia was conceived when George was 67, so she is still pretty young!)
…it is a famous bookstore, and, yes, it is of no small literary importance. But more than anything, Shakespeare and Company is a refuge, like the church across the river. A place where the owner allows everyone to take what they need and give what they can.
–Jeremy Mercer, Time Was Soft There
The day Lily and I visited, the store was crowded—full of like-minded pilgrims who had finally made it to this Parisian book shrine, mouths agape as they stared at the wonder of all the books stacked in every available space up to the rafters and on the floor. As we made our way to the second floor up a tiny staircase with badly worn grooves, we heard a piano playing classical music in the “music room” while people sat all around and read in the midst of yet more floor to ceiling books. At the top of the stairs is the children’s section with a large L-shaped pallet in the corner against the far wall—perfect for cozying up with a wonderful book, which is exactly what Lily did. After an hour, she still didn’t want to leave, so entranced by her nook and all the surrounding reading material. On the wall, there is an enormous bulletin board that has hundreds of handwritten notes stuck there by whatever means possible. Lily, of course, wanted to leave a note, so we found an old receipt onto which she wrote: “I LOVE this bookstore! Lily.” She then opened her little purse, took out a piece of chewing gum, popped it into her mouth and chewed furiously. Talking a very tiny bit, she fastened her note to the board. At first, I was appalled but let it go—who knows what else has been used for attaching all those notes over the years?
Despite the rain and cold, my granddaughter and I managed to see and do just about everything on our mutual “must” lists—architectural marvels, historical monuments and gardens, so many beautiful paintings and sculptures, and the lovely walkable neighborhoods. But the one thing Lily continued to talk about on the way home was the musty little bookstore where she spent an afternoon nestled in her cozy corner reading. My cup runneth over.
Tell us about your favorite bookstore. Where is it and why do you like it?