by Tracey Marie Walker,
An Independent Parisian Bookshop That Still Thrives
Shakespeare and Company bookshop is a literary center in Paris. It attracts both published and aspiring writers, as well as the general reading public. Large bookshops and Internet ordering have reorganized the way we buy and sell books, meaning independent bookshops struggle to survive. The Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, however, remains a time warp that works. As well as storing the histories and works of firmly established writers of the past, Shakespeare and Company hosts events to inspire and develop new writers, artists and musicians. Equally, they sell a range of books to cater for mainstream, academic and plain nostalgic readers.
A Warm Welcome
A message to all visitors is found painted upon the wall: ‘be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be an angel is disguise’. A rousing message that adds to the magic found lacking in chain stores. As visitors look around the shop, they can see the philosophy firmly at work. Expats, tourists and locals can be seen perusing the books on the more modern ground floor. Charmingly, a piano and stool is placed by the art and music books for the free use of all. There are no rules. This is a place of creative expression. Regardless of talent, music is heard echoing through the wooden shelves. If a reader is lucky, a beautiful piece will pierce the words on the page and carry them to the realms of emotion and imagination.
A tight wooden staircase leads to the first floor. Aside from the children’s section, books here are not for sale. They belong to the personal library of the eccentric and renowned owner, George Whitman. Visitors are welcome to browse the books and sit in the shop all day. In fact, George believes we should all strive to read a book a day. In the center of the room stands a heavy, antique table donning an old fashioned type-writer. Proving that visitors are not entering a museum of days gone by, these too are continuously open for public use. The heavy clicking of strenuous typing blended with the bells of Notre Dame leaves one temporally displaced.
Writing Workshops and Literary Events
Shakespeare and Company does not bloom due solely to living in the past. In fact, behind the eccentricity and utopian charm lies the practicality of living in the present and selling books. The library holds several workshops and events which actively draw in networks of readers and writers. The workshops are free, and you can come along to many of them without signing up beforehand. Literary events are held in the same place, where published writers read from their work and promote their books. It can be anything from poetry readings and chapters from novels, to passionate acting and contemporary interpretations of texts. Wine is often on offer during these events.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party
Sunday offers a tamer yet more dreamlike rendezvous. George opens up his apartment on the third floor for afternoon tea. Customers who happen to be browsing at that time are invited along, and a few regulars bring cakes and biscuits. Pam, an artist and poet, hosts the tea and puts everyone in the room on the spot for at least a few minutes. Random bits of well-known poetry and literary quotes are recited and people are also invited to read their own creative pieces. Between sips of tea, Romantic notions soar. As Pam says: ‘the person you see walking around the street muttering to themselves is a poet, and I’m talking before these hands-free mobile phones.’ Some are simply more courageous than others! Exuberantly, Pam calls this time of day ‘the mad hatter’s tea party’.
During time spent within the doors of the Shakespeare and Company, it is easy to imagine yourself wandering among the surreal aspects of Lewis Carroll’s imagination. You may even feel yourself shrinking as you descend the narrow staircase whilst avoiding a head injury. Pick up a book, enjoy the piano, and type if you feel inspired. Perhaps remember to buy a book.