Sunday, 25 October 2009

Probably the best bookshop in the world...

As the above picture illustrates, the Parisian bookshop,  Shakespeare and Company , deserves to be called a bookshop. The place is heaving with books. Also the odd chair, bed and enthusiastic volunteer. I was lucky enough to spend a Faber Academy workshop here two weeks ago and it didn't disappoint.

The story of Shakespeare and Company is a romantic one. Sylvia Beach, an American living in Paris, set  up the first shop by that name in  rue de l'Odeon in 1915. It soon became a centre for Anglo-American literature, due to Sylvia's excellent catalogue and her support for writers young and old. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Joyce, Gide were among the regular visitors that she helped out financially and practically. She championed freedom of speech, printing Lady Chatterley's Lover when it was banned in England, and Ulysses, when Joyce could not find a publisher.

In 1941, when Germany invaded Paris, Shakespeare and Company was forcibly closed. Although legend has it that Hemingway liberated the shop at the end of World War 2, Sylvia Beach never re-opened. But ten years later, a new bookshop was set up on rue St Boucherie, by another American, George Whitman. Called Le Mistral, it continued in Beach's traditions, welcoming new and old writers, and providing a hub of literary activity in the Left Bank. Writers who passed it's doors then included Ginsberg, Burrows, Miller, Nin. In 1962, Whitman received the ultimate endorsement from Beach, when she attended a literary reading, and gave permission for him to take on the name Shakespeare and Company.

Today George Whitman still lives above the shop he founded. His daughter Sylvia and her partner David, continue to run the place with the same warm welcome. Young writers or "tumbleweeds" are encouraged to stay, sleeping in beds among the bookstacks, on the condition they help out for two hours a day and read a book a day. As my daughters said when I told them -  what a deal. Published writers can spend time sleeping in the writers studio that looks out across the Seine to Notre Dame. And unpublished writers like me, get the chance to sit in workshops in the small library, with books piled from floor to ceiling, listening to church bells and soaking in the wealth of writing history around them.

As publishing gets more cut-throat and independent bookshops struggle to make ends meet, it is a wonder to find such a place as Shakespeare and Company. Even with Sylvia's modernisations, it still feels like a place that puts people before profit and books above business. In this day and age that seems nothing short of a miracle. A truly magical place, and a must see for any writer and/or book-lover who visits Paris.

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