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Just across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral lies a legendary bookshop. Foto: William Simon
Just across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral lies a legendary bookshop. Foto: William Simon

Lifestyle

A meeting place for book lovers in Paris

Just across the river, opposite Notre Dame Cathedral is a bookstore with a classic name. Here you will find all kinds of books, and if you yourself are struggling writer - well, then you might get a bed upstairs.

It’s the most legendary bookshop in Paris. Shakespeare and Company was opened in 1951 by George Whitman, an American expat who had had come to Europe as GI during the Second World War. He loved Paris, he loved books, and he decided to stay on. 

Sylvia Whitman, owner of the bookshop. Foto: Tobias Staebler

His shop – named after an earlier bookshop founded by Sylvia Beach that was frequented by James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and others in the 1920s – specialized in English-language literature, and the place quickly attracted the likes of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, followed by Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. “Some of them even lived here,” says Sylvia Whitman, who took over from her father in 2006.

“He called them ‘tumbleweeds,’ ” she says. “My father was a very generous spirit, and I'm keeping the tradition alive. So if you can prove that you’re a struggling author or poet, well, then you’re welcome to a room with a bed on the top floor. But you will need to help out in the bookshop and read at least one book a day. Those are the conditions!”

  Whitman points to the motto that her father painted above the entrance: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” “He truly believed that,” she says. “We do sometimes get people who simply forgot to book a hotel, but I’m pretty good at detecting them.”

  The bookshop consists of several old buildings that have been knocked together. Every room has a name –The Blue Oyster Tea Room, The Old Smoky Reading Room. The shelves are filled with everything from poetry to children’s books.

“We also have a rare book section with signed first editions by Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, and many others,” she says. 

The shop looks as rambling as ever, but some things have changed, Whitman explains.

“The shop was stuck in the pre-technological age when I took over,” she says. “I installed a telephone and computerized the stock, and we also have a website with details of the events we organize, poetry readings, talks, and lectures. Shakespeare and Company is a meeting place for people who love books. It always has been and it always will be.” 

Last edited: March 3, 2016

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