Shakespeare & Company

The Spirit of Bohemian Paris

Photos by Louie Dean Valencia

A one-way ticket from New York to Paris leaving November 14 will cost you six hundred thirty-four dollars and sixty-two cents. A subway ride from the airport to the city center will cost you twelve dollars and twenty cents. A walk down Rue de la Bucherie will cost you nothing. A stay at Shakespeare and Company will cost you a regular shift at the shop, a handful of chores, and daily dedication to the art of writing.

photo courtesy of Louie Valencia

photo courtesy of Louie Valencia

Upon entering the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, a book lover will find a labyrinth of shelves overflowing with new and old books, magazines, and almanacs. Traipse your ball of string through its narrow passages, and you just may find a limited edition or autographed copy of a famous novel; the store is known to both be and house hidden gems. Amongst the volumes, your yarn may get caught on the corner of a makeshift bed. The participants of this come and go writing community live quite literally between the bindings of the books they love. During the day, some beds are converted into shelves. Others simply serve as a place to sit and peruse whatever treasures you may have encountered. At night, though, they shelter the “tumbleweeds,” as George once called them in a feature documentary, the poets and novelists who have taken up residency in this world of literature.

For 63 years, Shakespeare and Company has opened its doors to independent writers, struggling to make their way in a world that has, historically, been financially cruel to artists such as themselves. Founded by the American George Whitman in 1951 as Le Mistral and later renamed for Sylvia Beach’s iconic lending library, the store has harbored an estimated 50,000 writers through the years. Some, like Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Allen Ginsberg, have gone on to critical literary acclaim. Others have taken their stay at Shakespeare in stride and simply faded into obscurity. All those who have experienced the tumbleweed life, though, have participated in a long tradition of the cultivation of bohemianism.

The store’s namesake, the original Shakespeare and Company, was opened in 1919 by Silvia Beach. Her dual function bookstore and lending library served as a primary gathering place for writers of the Lost Generation. Writers such as Ernest Hemmingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce used to gather there to write, critique, and discuss their own creations. Beach herself, actually published a few of their works, most notably Ulysses by Joyce. The store was shut down during the German occupation of France in WWI and never reemerged until its spirit was taken up by George Whitman. Beach and Whitman had been friends. George loved the way that Sylvia had tried to run her institution and deeply respected her work for the Parisian literary community. He even named his only daughter after her. That daughter, Silvia Beach Whitman is now the current proprietor of the shop.

photo courtesy of Louie Valencia

photo courtesy of Louie Valencia

Beach Whitman tries to run Shakespeare and Company in ordinance with her father’s self proclaimed style, as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop.” Those who stay there are welcomed indefinitely. They may sleep in the creviced beds around the shop, eat the food stocked in the kitchen, and wander the streets of Paris for no charge. In return, the flaneurs must help maintain the shop. They all take shifts working the floor or checkout desk and perform repair tasks and odd jobs as needed. The only other requirement to take up a bunk is a commitment to practicing their writing. This rule, though, is only the addition of Sylvia Beach Whitman; her father was actually less strict about who occupied beds. Whitman says in a documentary featuring the store that she hopes to narrow the focus of her socialist utopia so as to more efficiently cultivate beat writing.

The style of this “socialist utopia” is obviously uncommon. There are not many places in this world that could sustain the idea of aspiring writers living freely in exchange for working and practicing their craft. It is no coincidence then, that Shakespeare and Co took root in Paris. As a city, Paris has always represented authenticity of ideas and a resistance to oppression. Under Roman rule, many Parisians refused to adopt Roman religion leading to the beheading of St. Denis and the creation of the Mountain of Martyrs. Prior to the Middle Ages, Paris fought off numerous Germanic tribes to maintain their independence. In even more substantial displays of the spirit of independence, the city served as the center stage for ideas of the Enlightenment and the defense of those ideas in the French Revolution. Evidenced through their history, Parisians have fought for their right to maintain an open-minded space, tolerant of new and unconventional ideas. The city has become a symbol of freedom of expression, creating a breeding ground for places of bohemian significance. Paris is a natural location, therefore, for Shakespeare and Company to attempt to cultivate avant-garde writers and also to practice their style of utopian socialism.

While part of this socialist utopian spirit was born out of a hope to produce writers who will contribute great new works to the world, much of it actually sprouted from George Whitman’s simple belief in hospitality and community. “My main thing in life is friendship. Love and friendship,” he said in a film depicting the store. While Beach Whitman may practice a slightly more directed theory, the shop remains a place of anarchical comfort for those blowing through the breeze. It is a place for an artist to catch her or his breath, either momentarily or for an extended period of time. It is a haven safe from the biting reality of a world that continues to devalue art. It is a community and a home for those who still believe in the significance of script. A labyrinthine gem in the heart of Paris, Shakespeare and Company lives on as both a tribute to the past and a testament of the future of writing.

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