Come to Buy a Book or Come to Stay

Shakespeare & Co. in Paris

Paris' Shakespeare & Company Sells Books
and Gives Away Lodging if You Can't Afford Books

Paris:- Wednesday, 5. February 1997:- I don't know if this happens to everybody, but when you go to Shakespeare and Company in Paris you are immediately surrounded by myth.

I carried myth with me of course, in the form of the memory of an old photo of the first Shakespeare & Co., of the original shop at number 12 in the rue Dupuytren near the Odéon, with Sylvia Beach standing in front of it together with James Joyce.

This afternoon I resurface into the Latin Quarter of Paris from the métro Saint-Michel; coming up right for once, at the corner of the boulevard and the quai Saint-Michel.

I go along past the big Gilbert Jeune bookstore that sprawls all over the place - there are several small book and print shops along the quai where friends have gotten good books, and I got an old 16th or 17th century map of Paris for a writer pal in Chicago some years ago.

Interior of the bookshop

These places are encrusted with the muck the heavy traffic throws on them, but they are still there and the are still doing the same businesses.

After crossing the rue de la Petit Pont, also a 'place;' behind the quai de Montebello, behind a tiny triangle of a park called the square Auguste-Mariette, there is the rue de la Bûcherie, itself separated from its larger part, by the square René-Viviani, which was the location of the second annex of the Hôtel-Dieu, until 1909.

The 'Petit-Pont' is, in effect, 20 centuries old. The rue de la Bûcherie, begun in the sixth century, was opened in 1202. Long before there was a quai de Montebello - between the morsel of a street and the river, the buildings on the north side of the street were firewood warehouses and sawmills on their Seine side, and this activity continued until the 16th century. In 1602, the first annex of the Hôtel-Dieu found its location here.

All books sold at the address of Shakespeare and Company, at number 37 rue de la Bûcherie are rubber-stamped and the stamp says *Shakespeare and Company*Kilometer Zero Paris* The 'Kilometre Zéro' is in front of Notre-Dame and I figure it is about 160 metres away from the bookshop.

I am being very picky here, telling you exactly where Shakespeare and Company is located - because this version of Shakespeare seems to be somewhat fuzzy, when compared to the original 'Shakespeare and Company' of Sylvia Beach.

Inside, when I say I want to write about the bookshop, the fellow at the cash says I should see George and says I should look for him upstairs someplace. The shop is a maze of tiny rooms with books stacked to the ceilings, of minuscule cubby-holes with hot-plates, of tatty rugs and old settees, of gilded mirrors, and books, books, and more books everywhere.

There are also sets of narrow stairways and I go up and through more rooms stuffed with books until I reach a front room overlooking the river and the church. There is a man who is pretending to look at books, but who seems to be waiting to talk to the other man, who is tapping with two fingers on a Mac Plus keyboard. The ventilation slots on top have had something hot set on them and they are a bit deformed.

After a long while, the man stops typing and tells the waiting man that there are newer books on the window shelf behind him. The waiting man is not interested, and he looks at some more books four paces away on the other side of the room.

After thirty-six hours of this I ask the typing man, while he is taking a 30-second rest, if he is 'George.' The room is not big and I am not small. The man notices me with slight surprise and tells me about going through steel doors and up stairs and across something, to the 'American' section, where I will find 'George.'

I do some of this and find 'Jeff' instead. Jeff tells me where to find 'George.' Down one floor and through the steel door to the right.

This room also overlooks the Seine and Notre-Dame and the old man says he is 'George' when I ask him for 'George.' He says he is 'over 80' but he doesn't look it. 'Over' something, but not eighty. The 'official' history does not say how old George Whitman is, but I make him at 86.

George is very affable and he soon invites me to take up lodging in the bookshop. This is not unusual, as 'Jeff' later tells me. I decline with thanks for the offer. The room we are in is the 'Sylvia Beach Memorial Library,' and it is apparently full of rare books, that can be consulted on the spot, but not purchased. George complains that a recent boarder helped himself to some anyway.

George Whitman in the Sylvia Beach library

I am pretty sure I have seen a minor fraction of the bookshop so far and I am right on the money when I ask if there happens to be some sort of manageable press file and it turns out to be - not five A4 pages - but three or four huge loose-leaf binders full of press clippings, letters from famous people and assorted keepsakes, handbills, flyers, photographs and knick-knacks.

Luckily 'Jeff' comes in and is introduced as a bicyclist on his way to Turkey. We three set off in search of the 'main' press file and upstairs it is not where it was last but is finally discovered in less than 10 minutes, and it turns out to be as big as I feared. It might also be a 'dummy' for getting rid of guys like me because when I ask if there isn't something a little handier, I am assured that there is a booklet containing the 'official history' near the cash desk.

George goes off and Jeff and I talk about 'bicycling to Turkey.' We discuss various possibilities of getting around the Balkans and whether it is possible to go through Lebanon to Israel. Jeff tells me he stopped off in the bookshop for a couple of days' breather, and has been here three months. Ah yes, it is winter down there, especially in the Italian mountains; and George pays a little in the meantime.

Before I go, I wish Jeff a good journey. Down at the cash desk, which we reach by going outside, I find that the sticker price on the books with the history has risen by 25 percent - since I went upstairs? - and I go off to the boulevard Saint Michel to find a cash machine, and come back to get the books.

A quick skim tells me that George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company bookshop began life in 1951 as the 'Mistral,' on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1964, which I am not sure of. In homage to Sylvia Beach who had recently died - in 1962, the 'Mistral' became Shakespeare and Company.

George Whitman was bounced out of business in 1967 for not having a 'Foreign Businessman' Permit,' so he immediately set about publishing 'Paris Magazine,' with a print-run of 5,000. A year later, after the 'events' of the spring of '68, he was granted a permit, and Shakespeare resumed trade.

During all this time, the bookshop functioned as sort of a literary bus-station and flop-house for a couple of generations of writers in English; many of whom gave readings, or had their works published in various Whitman ventures.

David Applefield's 'Frank' was launched from the sidewalk in front of Shakespeare on an evening in June of 1984. In the shop the sidewalk is called 'the terrace,' but is actually the rue de la Bûcherie. The second issue of 'Paris Magazine' appeared in the same year, 17 years after the first issue.

And here is a surprise for me: I find that I was almost nearly involved. In 1980 I went to see a fellow named Robert Sarner, from Toronto, who was a shoe or dress manufacturer from Los Angeles - who was in Paris with the intention of starting a city magazine, to fill the gap left by the second demise of 'The Paris Métro.' I even did a sketch cover for the dummy or first issue, but could not come to terms with Mr. Sarner, and that was the end of it. I couldn't quite believe in a magazine called 'Passion' in any case.

Now I learn from the 'history' that one of 'Passion's' ex- managing editors, Randal Koral, was supposed to become a co-editor of 'Paris Magazine,' but this dissolved and Whitman eventually did it himself in his own style; while Koral went on to Vogue magazine in New York. 'Passion' apparently lingered on for two years after being taken over by London's 'Time Out,' before disappearing as recently in 1991.

It seemed like more was possible in the mid-eighties - even if I had nothing to do with these events - and a clutch of magazines and journals appeared - all with some connection, if only well-wishes from George Whitman - including Odile Hellier's 'up-and-coming Village Voice' - as stated in a 'quote' from the 'history.'

Shakespeare's 'Paris Wall Newspaper'

I still have nothing much to do with the Paris anglophone community, so I do not know if 'The Paris Free Voice' is the same as the 'Village Voice' or it is another horse entirely.

The 'history' also mentions that the situation - for publications, literary or otherwise - has taken a turn for the worse in Paris, which is not a mystery to me.

The 'history' of Shakespeare and Company, written after the 1990 fire in the 'Sylvia Beach Memorial Library,' is by David Applefield and Richard Hallwand, and appears in 'Fire Readings,' a compilation from four readings on both sides of the Atlantic by 140 writers. Fire Readings was published by Frank Books in Vincennes.

There it is, in the rue de la Bûcherie, straight across from the rue de la Huchette - Shakespeare and Company. I do not know how many books are inside it, but the ones that are not for sale can be read on the spot.

I do not know how many people live at Shakespeare and Company, nor how many work there, or how many read for free there. By the time you read this, all these people may be gone and there will be room for you. It might be kind of fun if you think you like the idea of hanging around the Paris anglophone lit. Scene.

While going back through the rue de la Huchette I tried to remember the name of the book that Metropole reader Dana Shaw found out I hadn't read. I crossed over the boulevard and went up towards the Odéon on the rue Danton.

When I got there I went to the rue Dupuytren to try and figure out which shop had been the Shakespeare and Company that Sylvia Beach opened on 19. November 1919. I stood on the odd-numbered side and imagined it from the photo I'd seen. Cars cannot park on the even-numbered side so it is possible to see the street and the building fronts from bottom to top and I kind of thought the hairdresser at number 10 looked likely.

When I got home and looked closely at the photograph, the number is clearly 8. In the summer of 1921 Sylvia moved her shop to number 12 in the rue de l'Odéon, down around the corner of the carrefour, and up a bit on the west side.

On the threat of the confiscation of the shop's contents by occupation troops in 1941, Sylvia and her neighbors took everything out in two hours, light fixtures included, and hid it all in an unoccupied upstairs apartment. The sign was painted out - Shakespeare and Company had disappeared. The initial publisher, in 1922, of 'Ulysses' by James Joyce, never reopened her shop.

Sylvia herself spent six months in an internment camp and then was allowed to return to Paris, where she managed to live until Ernest Hemingway, with the help of the resistance, the French forces under General Leclerc, and the entire allied forces, liberated the rue de l'Odéon.

After clearing neighboring roofs of bad guys, Hemingway went off to liberate the cellars of the Ritz - but everybody knows all about that.

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