* Shakespeare and Company began as a small lending library set up by Sylvia Beach, an American, at Rue Dupuytren, before moving to larger premises at Rue l’Odeon in 1922
* It became a regular haunt for Lost Generation writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, whose Ulysses was first published in its complete form by Beach when it was declared indecent in the US and Britain
* While Beach offered access to free books and, sometimes, financial assistance to the young, brilliant and often cash-strapped aspirants of the interwar years, her “spiritual successor” Whitman allowed young writers and poets to stay at the bookshop — all for a few hours of work on a daily basis
It was a lazy Sunday morning in late spring last year. The large tree and its fresh leaves looked funnily distorted through the rippled glass panes of this upper-storey window. The strong smell of coffee wafted in from the café next door, which mingled delightfully with the musty smell of books, stacked in rows of archaic shelves built deep into the walls of this small room in a 17th-century building.
A quiet stroll through the stretch of Rue de la Bûcherie had led me up here at Shakespeare and Company, arguably the most famous independent bookshop in the world. It’s a literary institution that started its journey in 1919 on the southern bank of River Seine.
It began as a small lending library set up by Sylvia Beach, an American, at Rue Dupuytren, before moving to larger premises at Rue l’Odeon in 1922. The earliest subscribers would find a humble assortment of literary magazines and books that included contemporary works of English literature by TS Eliot, James Joyce and Ezra Pound, without a catalogue or any index. The informality set the tone for an atmosphere that would soon turn Shakespeare and Company, as biographer and historian Noel Riley Fitch put it, a “meeting place, clubhouse, post office, money exchange, and reading room for the famous and soon-to-be famous”. It became a regular haunt for Lost Generation writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, whose Ulysses was first published in its complete form by Beach when it was declared indecent in the US and Britain. The publication brought worldwide fame to the author and the bookshop, and triggered a flurry of innovative publishing of the works of Hemingway, Ezra Pound and EE Cummings from there.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Shakespeare and Company was a hotbed of the avant-garde in Paris where Hemingway would come over for a reading session with Stephen Spender or practise boxing with Pound while discussing his latest work with the fellow American; magazines used the bookshop as their editorial address, and Surrealists like Man Ray defended their movement against detractors. And along the way, Beach played mother hen to the slew of writers. Of her, Hemingway later said, “No one I ever knew was nicer to me.”
All this came to a halt in the summer of 1941. The bookshop downed its shutters in Nazi-occupied Paris. The story goes that Beach refused to sell the last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to a German officer, who threatened to confiscate her books. She immediately packed up and closed the shop. After the war, Hemingway tried to reopen Stratford-on-Odeon (as the shop was lovingly nicknamed) in vain.
Ten years later, George Whitman, an American ex-serviceman, opened a bookshop on Rue de la Bucherie. He named it Le Mistral, which, in a few years, much like Shakespeare and Company, became the centrepiece of bohemian Paris. Among its denizens were Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. Burroughs made the bookshop his base to research portions of his cult novel Naked Lunch from Whitman’s collection of medical textbooks.
A delighted Beach named Whitman her “spiritual successor” and bequeathed the rights to the name ‘Shakespeare and Company’ to the young American. In 1964, two years after Beach’s death and on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Whitman rechristened Le Mistral as Shakespeare and Company, which he described as “a novel in three words”.
While Beach offered access to free books and, sometimes, financial assistance to the young, brilliant and often cash-strapped aspirants of the interwar years, Whitman carried it one step ahead. He called his store “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop”, where he created a haven for young and struggling writers from across the globe. They could find a home here and crash into the tiny beds tucked between the antique shelves — all for a few hours of work in assisting the shop’s daily affairs; with a clause that they’d have to read a book a day and write a one-page autobiography for the shop’s archives. Whitman referred to them as “tumbleweeds” that “blow in and out on the winds of chance”. It’s a legacy that Whitman’s daughter Sylvia (named after Beach) and her husband David have lovingly continued till date. It is estimated that around 30,000 tumbleweeds have been hosted in this Left Bank establishment till date.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown have been hard on the bookshop. According to news reports, sales are down by 80 per cent since March, which is when France announced its first lockdown. Seven months later, with no sign of sales picking up, it appealed to customers via email to help the shop survive by placing orders online.
As I glided in and out of the second-floor rooms, strewn with musty stacks and rickety old chairs, I bumped into Francis. A young Spaniard, he, too, is a tumbleweed. Having made the shop his base for a couple of weeks, he wanted to start writing a novella from here. He guided me to one of the store’s hidden gems — a collection of first editions from the ’20s and ’30s, before he returned to the sales counter.
I foraged through the shelves that are a heady mix of recent works of Anglo-American writing, Paris-themed journals and antiquarian literary treasures. I picked up old copies of The Paris Review and a 1979 edition of Little Birds by Anais Nin, before winding my way down the wooden stairs, past a well-worn piano, and out into a breezy Parisian afternoon.
I then headed to a café next door, owned by the bookshop, for a leisurely café au lait and a lemon pie, while eyeing the bargain book racks neatly kept on the sidewalk and the majestic elegance of Notre Dame cathedral, just across the Seine.
Sugato Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer