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Posted at: Oct 13, 2019, 1:34 AM; last updated: Oct 13, 2019, 1:34 AM (IST)

In Paris, a bookstore of stories

In early 20th century, Shakespeare and Company was frequented by great litterateurs like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald
In Paris, a bookstore of stories
The exterior of the bookstore as it looks today.

I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter …. I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations. - George Whitman, Founder of Shakespeare and Company

In London you’re always thinking about the dress or car you need to buy. I don’t think like that when I’m here (in Paris). In London, everything revolves around money. Here, everything revolves around poetry. - Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter

Quite frankly, I am embarrassed as I write this, but it was not more than two months ago that I first heard of ‘arguably, the most famous bookstore in the world’: Shakespeare and Company in Paris. It is not that I had never been to Paris — I had, several times — but somehow it was always a bit rushed, a bit too focussed on the work, generally an exhibition, in hand: I never went to a bookstore in that seductive city. And now I was hearing about it, in the course of a casual conversation, from a friend who lives in Canada, and came visiting here. As I said, I was, and continue to be, embarrassed.

The great bookstore, which goes long back into the past, is still there, and I am clear in my mind that I will make my way to it the next time I happen to be in Paris. Meanwhile, I have been reading up on it and the thought of getting to visit it grows stronger by the day. George Whitman, “an erudite American who fell in love with Paris after World War II” — there is a vague but unconfirmed rumour around that he was related to the celebrated American poet, Walt Whitman — is the name inextricably associated with the store. It is located not far from the Cathedral of Notre Dame, close to which also was another, older, store by the same name which another American, Sylvia Beach, had founded at the beginning of the 20th century: stocked exclusively with books in English and frequented by great names in literature, among them James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. The place had turned into a literary ‘adda’ so to speak, resounding with the sound of book readings, and astir with discussions. But Sylvia Beach passed on, having bequeathed the name of her bookstore to George Whitman: Shakespeare and Company. So it remains, till now.

George was a bohemian at heart, a free spirit, who wanted the world of books to be open to everyone, just about everyone. You entered the bookstore and found yourself in a world of literary anarchy. There were books everywhere, some inside shelves, but huge numbers piled up in stacks scattered all over the place. Almost the first sight that greeted you was a sentence emblazoned on a doorway leading to the innards of the store. “Be not inhospitable to strangers”, it read, “lest they be angels in disguise.” [George maintained that the words are those of WB Yeats, although they can be traced back to the Bible!] If you wanted to go upstairs to another level, equally jam-packed with books, you took an ancient-looking flight of wooden steps, on each of which you would find written, in bold letters, a word or two that you connected to form a sentence as you climbed up. “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.” The words are those of the great 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz. Things — thoughts, in fact — like these resonated with George who thought of his place as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. For him the shop was in itself a living work of art.

Almost as if he could not bear the thought of being parted from his first love — his bookstore — George lived in the shop itself, on the top floor, till he passed away at the age of 98 in 2011. But he was not the only one who lived in the store: the doors were open to struggling authors who found themselves without a place to stay in Paris, as also to aspiring students. There were, in fact, as many as 13 beds — bunks you might call them — scattered all over the multi-storeyed shop, but almost hidden from view behind shelves of books. George would espy a deserving person and, like a kind uncle, ask him or her to spend a night or two in the shop itself. ‘Tumbleweeds’ is how he called these stragglers: here today, gone tomorrow, scattered by the wind. What he expected in return for these favours was that they would put in two hours of work in the shop, and vaguely promise that they would read one book every day. For ‘authors’ there was the additional condition that they must write a single-page autobiography for the shop’s records. These single-page writings, or letters sent by those who had availed of George’s incredible generosity, are everywhere: stuck to walls, embedded in nooks and corners, forming curtains behind which beds were hidden. “Tumbleweeds came and went,” a young girl wrote recalling her stay. “I shared the upper rooms with a Uighur dissident, a Dutch ballerina, and a slumming British violinist. After work, we sat around drinking. I made friends with an aristocratic Sri Lankan girl studying math at Oxford. After work, we sat around gossiping next to a first edition of Ulysses.” But there are also notes or letters from people who are celebrities of the new generation: Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, William Burroughs, Ray Bradbury...

This is what George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company is like. Nothing like it exists anywhere else, one can be sure. It is run now by George’s daughter, Sylvia, whom he had named after the ‘original founder’ of the book-store: Sylvia Beach. The character of the store has not changed. As someone, who was at the store recently, said: “If you read somewhere that the book is dead, come to Paris. One hundred years later, Shakespeare and Company is busy as if the book has just been invented and everyone wants one.”

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