Saturday, September 27, 2008

Shakespeare and Company (1919-1941 and 1951-Present) - Legendary Parisian Bookstore

One day during an extended stay in Paris in 2003, I was sitting outside Shakespeare and Company. On a bench round a tree out front. And dreaming about the earlier days of this legendary bookstore.

When a group of expatriate Americans began to form on the sidewalk. A middle-aged writer put out a chair, a box full of his newly published novel and began autographing front pages. A dancer in her late 30's began talking about her career and immediate plans. And her companion announced he'd just finished shooting his film, and was going into post-production. Which provoked the novelist to stand up and join the conversation. A woman came to the first floor window over the entrance to the store, and began gazing out -
an Iris Murdoch taking a pause in writing. After about half an hour, everyone noisily de-camped to a church nearby for some literary function.

It seemed - incredibly - that some faint trace of the famed character of the bookshop seemed to have lingered on!

In 1915,
Adrienne Monnier opened a bookshop with the first free lending library in the French capital - 'La Maison des Amis des Livres'. At 7 rue de l'Odeon on the Rive Gauche.

Adrienne Monnier (centre)at 'La Maison des Amis des Livres'

The firm was a proto-type for Shakespeare and Company, established by her lover and aspiring bibliophile, Sylvia Beach. The newer bookshop continued the tradition of overflowing bookshelves, and photographs, drawings, antiques and bric-a-brac all piled up.

Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach at Monnier Family Farm Savoie

This first Shakespeare and Company opened in 1919, settling in larger premises in 1921 at 12 rue de l’Odéon.

Shakespeare and Company at 12 rue de l’Odéon, Sylvia Beach Out Front

The firm, so named as 'my partner Bill ... was well-disposed to my undertaking; and, besides, he was a best seller', soon became a meeting place for artists, and writers, such as William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald and TS Eliot ...

Ernest Hemingway Outside Shakespeare and Company, with Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company

... with Sylvia Beach instigating such projects as the publication of 'Ulysses' in 1921.

Hemingway (in A Movable Feast) wrote tellingly of the atmosphere of the enterprise at this time, and particularly of its proprietor:

'Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal's and as gay as a young girl's, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears and at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful, and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me'

After some years of financial difficulties, and rescues by friends and admirers, the company finally closed in 1941.

But Sylvia Beach allowed George Whitman to use the name in 1951 when he re-opened Shakespeare and Company at 37, Rue Bûcherie (, his converted apartment opposite Notre Dame de Paris.

Sylvia Beach Whitman, Bill Clinton and George Whitman

This second institution maintains much of its own quirky original character ...

... even up to someone sleeping in the makeshift bed on the first floor - where I'd ventured up to continue browsing ...

... and, then, make my own 'writing pause' appearance at the window.

And, in my turn, be mistakenly photographed from below!

But the real point is that the tradition of the place continues - with new generations, from the likes of Henry Miller, Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and Alan Ginsberg up to the present. Encouraged by a regular schedule of events, such poetry readings, literary discussions and so on.

In a world of elites, globalisation and cultural homogonisation, young artists of various persuasions are still supported and nurtured - even to the extent of being given a bed and roof over their heads when needed!

So it's a living tradition and not some horribly preserved holy relic - like Saint Anthony's toe nail, all bound up in a gilded quartz crystal box to be quietly and reverently peered at!


  1. I happened to turn on my computer at 4 in the morning here and found this totally fascinating story. What a treat! Thanks, Nick.

  2. hey wit - lovely to hear from you again! and glad you liked this post - i really (really) enjoyed doing it - there's so much more but it's good to limit things to the extent of people's interest. take care. nick

  3. Fascinating post. Just another place I need to get to in my next life.

    Alan down in Florida

  4. hey alan

    yep, we just need to organize having several lifetimes!

    ps thanks for the asian guys link! ;>