My eldest sister has been to Paris before and so before I left I asked her for her advice. I wanted to know areas to stay and things to see. She highly suggested I book a hotel within walking distance of a metro station. Which under other circumstances would have been normally great advice. However I went to Paris in the mist of the winter 2019-2020 strike so only about 3-10% of trains were running. Which is quite the low number. This meant I was using pretty much everything EXCEPT my nearby local metro.
But after a busy day, full of misadventures due to the strikes and closings in public transportation, I decided to end my first full day in Paris with Shakespeare and Company, which my sister (who is maybe even more addicted to buying books than myself) had suggested.
My plan had been originally to eat there, but I got a bit nervous because it looked busy. I decided to walk around the bookstore instead. I wanted to pick up some French novels in English that I’d been meaning to read or re-read and had been unable to find in South Korea. Inside to the right were two large bookcases full of French books translated into English. However there were other people looking. So I moved on. I wandered around, finding every available nook covered in books. The stairway up to the second floor had a shelf running along it at an angle filled with only Agatha Christie novels. There was a science fiction corner with placards that I really wanted to get a picture of because of how they just matched so perfectly…however photography is not allowed within the store. I even asked if there could be an exception if I was making sure no one was in the background. But they said this leads to other people taking pictures which is a big no-no.
I wandered around the very crowded store. Mostly crowded in books but also crowded with people. There were a lot of people looking at books, a lot of staff putting books away, and people just chilling, sitting in chairs either reading or talking. After a moment I decided to go upstairs and see what was on the second floor.
The second floor was quite cool. All the newer books are downstairs, except in the Antique dealers room next door which had closed already. There were thin mattresses sitting out and directly behind when you head upstairs. There was a wall next to one of the mattresses covered in notes.
There are two main rooms. Once up the stairs if you go straight passed the desks with the windows on the right and the typewriter on the left it will open up into a bigger room. Or if once directly on the second floor you turn right there is a bigger room with a piano. If you go right, at least for while it is up, there is a comic, about the history of the store. I suggest, for as long as the comic stays up that you first go right into the piano room as this is where the first part of the comic can be found.
The comic has been blown up so it’s easy to read as you wander around. It tells the start of the Parisian Shakespeare and Company and the tale of it’s owner, an American woman named Sylvia Beach. Sylvia Beach opened the original Shakespeare and Company on November 19, 1919. It moved to a larger space in 1921. It wasn’t just a bookstore. It was the focal point of a whole community within Paris during the time. People used it as a library and they slept in the apartment upstairs. Writers and artists during the time found it to be the place to be they used it as their office and a home away from home as well as just gathering spot. It was frequented by the Lost Generation (the generation to grow up during World War I) and even many of the books written by them fill a large book case to the right as soon as you step foot into the bookstore. Though to be honest, most of them are Ernest Hemingway’s works.
The bookstore also dealt in banned books. Sylvia Beach published Ulysses by James Joyce when everyone else refused to even Ernest Hemingway tried to smuggle it back to North America to his friends. Patron’s could also find the banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. Popular literary figures came and did readings, even authors who were renowned for never doing readings, would do so at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore.
The bookstore remained open until the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1941 during World War II. In the comic it’s suggested that the bookstore was forced closed because she refused to sell a Nazi her last copy of Jame Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and that she spent most of her time with all her rescued books and art upstairs in her apartment above the store. The store had even been painted over. She remained here during the war until she heard a familiar voice call out, which was her friend, Hemingway personally liberating the bookstore when the war was over.
To walk through the bookstore, which may not be the original, still holds so much magic. The magic that Sylvia Beach created still survives. There’s always at least one cat wandering the book stacks or napping. I spotted the cat napping on a man’s lap as he was engrossed in a book upstairs. In another room a piano sat and a man was playing to the delight of a small audience listening nearby. When he finished a woman complained saying she really had hoped he’d continue. He declined but his friend who’d been sitting nearby offered up his abilities, warning they weren’t nearly as good, and as I wandered the stacks he was quite good, and he even began to sing. It really felt like a magical end to my first full day in Paris.
When I went back downstairs the French author section had cleared out and I found the books I wanted and even decided to buy Ulysses. I had to ask help to find it. It was underneath the large amount of Hemingway books in the Lost Generation section. Note that the only version they had was an annotated students copy. Which means the thing is a beast and if dropped could break several bones. And then with four books I checked out leaving the warmth of the bookstore and heading out into the night.
The cafe was closed, but before I left Paris I did make it back. It didn’t quite have the same magic of the bookstore itself, but I can see it being popular since it was vegan/vegetarian friendly. (A post about that will come up later)
Shakespeare and Company bookstore is broken up into a couple different shops. The main shop open Monday through Saturday, from 10 to 10, and on Sundays from 12:30to 8pm. The Antiquarian is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 to 7pm.
They are closed: May 1st, August 15th, November 1st, and December 25th. They have limited hours for public holidays from 12:30pm to 8pm on April 22nd, May 8th, May 30th, June 10th, July 14th, and November 11th.