Nguyen H. H. Duyen
The legendary parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company continues to be a haven for bibliophiles from around the world.
On a July afternoon in 2015, holding a map of Paris in my hands, I took a walk from Hôtel de Ville to Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was a late afternoon, yet the sun still shone brightly as my steps took me away from the crowd in front of the cathedral and towards René Viviani Square.
Here I encountered a wondrous bookstore: Shakespeare and Company.
As I entered, I was surrounded by the vibrant colors of thousands of categorized books on bookshelves, illuminated by warm lighting. Taking the narrow stairs up to the first floor, I felt like Alice in a wonderland filled with books in every nook and cranny. The children’s corner appeared with a bed behind two red curtains, like a door to a mystical world. In the next room, a guest was playing a piano next to an old cane chair while some young people were enjoying the music from a sofa.
A small room was situated nearby, so small that I had to crouch to get in. I sat down and looked at the surrounding walls covered with notes. In another room, a large window overlooked Notre-Dame Cathedral. A white cat was dozing on the windowsill and a vase of sunflowers rested on the floor among several reading chairs and countless books on all sides. A girl slowly turned the pages of her book, worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the streets outside.
As the sun was about to set, I went downstairs and bought a copy of Le Petit Prince to remember my first visit to the bookstore. I left with the intention of learning more about this magical place and already making plans to return.
George Whitman and his utopia
The success and longevity of Shakespeare and Company bookstore can be traced to its founder, George Whitman.
After graduating with a degree in journalism from Boston University in 1935, Whitman spent the next 10 years on an adventure that included four years in the army and travels throughout the U.S., Mexico and Central America. In 1946, he arrived in Paris and enrolled at Sorbonne University. Whitman spent his government stipend for World War II veterans on books and opened a small library in his room at the Hôtel de Suez on boulevard Saint-Michel. In 1951, he bought a grocery store from an Algerian couple and opened his own bookstore, Le Mistral, which would later become Shakespeare and Company.
Originally, Shakespeare and Company was the name of a bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 at 12 Rue de l’Odéon. It was the meeting place of expatriate artists and writers in Paris, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. However, it was closed in December 1941 when the German army occupied the city. Beach bequeathed the name of her iconic bookstore to Whitman before her death in 1962, and he would go on to rename Le Mistral in 1964.
“I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter,” Whitman said. “I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.”
In the following decades, Shakespeare and Company gradually grew bigger. It was no longer just a place to buy and sell books but also a community library, a meeting place for artists, writers, intellectuals and students, and a stage for poetry reading nights, lectures and foreign language classes. The bookstore also provided free accommodation for travelers from far-flung places. This was George’s way to show his gratitude towards life for treating him well during his adventures in his younger days. He called his tenants “Tumbleweeds” – a rootless plant that blows in and out on the winds of chance. In exchange for their stay, travelers were asked to do three things: help out around the bookstore for a couple of hours, read a book a day and write a one-page autobiography. In this way, the bookstore became an archive of thousands of pages of personal stories.
In 2002, the bookstore’s ownership was transferred to Sylvia, George’s daughter. He later passed away at the age of 98. However, his spirit, enthusiasm, and ideology live on in the place he once described as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”
On an afternoon in October 2018, I finally returned to Shakespeare and Company. The bookstore was unchanged, with the same warm lights, small rooms filled with books and large window overlooking Notre-Dame Cathedral. I saw images of Allen Ginsberg, William Saroyan, Jack Kerouac, all writers who visited the shop. I also saw Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on the set of the film Before Sunset. And I imagined George Whitman himself sitting on the cane chair next to the piano.
While browsing over an old bookshelf, I stumbled across a copy of The Thorn Birds. Opening to its first page, I was surprised to find the prologue in Vietnamese, written in blue ink by someone who seemed to be a Southerner. I read it enthusiastically, marveling that I would find a passage from my favorite book translated into Vietnamese in Paris. At that very moment, I realized: only at Shakespeare and Company, where time stands still, could I feel at home in a foreign place. I found a sense of community there, a community of imagination, knowledge and freedom.