Tuesday was a sun drenched, blossom littered, planeless day in Paris and after a few hours of meandering aimlessly around unknown department stores trying to replace a summer jacket that my husband has described as “really awful”, I gave up the ghost. It was one of those days when the weather had taken the city by surprise and school children and office workers were sunning themselves in small parks and church gardens. So, if the truth be known, it was too glorious to be jacket shopping and an excellent opportunity for me to check out Paris’ most famous English language book shop – Shakespeare and Co.
Shakespeare and Co is tucked in on the edge of the Latin Quarter – opposite Notre Dame and snuggled next door to St Julien le Pauvre. Like these two sights – it is quite woven into the fabric of the city. Originally founded in 1919, the shop was the frequent haunt of Ernest Hemmingway, Erza Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce to name but a few. It was renowned for selling books that had been banned elsewhere such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses. The first incarnation of Shakespeare and Co was closed down during the German occupation of Paris in 1941 and booklovers had to wait for a whole decade for it to be reborn. The current shop has been going since 1951 and has been called a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Most importantly, Shakespeare and Co is not a sterile seller of books – it is a living place. The shop frequently plays host to new writers for readings and discussion nights and even puts them up – there are 13 beds available for writers to live and work in the shop.
I found Shakespeare and Co to be a warren of tiny half separated rooms in which every spare corner contains a pile of books. Upstairs an eclectic selection of chairs and sofas are arranged in a well stocked reading room and a piano and a typewriter are available for travelling musicians and correspondents. The whole place teems with hoards of pilgrims (for Pilgrims they must surely be called...), all shuffling past one another, crouching in corners to read while another browses and saying “oh excuse me” and “oh sorry” etc. The books that are for sale downstairs are a remarkably intelligent selection of the classic and the offbeat – and the new and the second hand are all mixed up.
Although I was feeling a bit “off” shopping, I could hardly resist a spot of book buying. So – I have supplemented my shelves with three new acquisitions – a collection of short stories by the wonderful magical realist Gabriel Garcia Marquez called No one writes to the Colonel. Realising that I am a bit down on my Defoe, I also picked up both A Journal of the Plague Year and Moll Flanders. But then, who, having read the title page of Moll Flanders could possibly resist?
If you find yourself in Paris any day soon, you might like to look at the shop’s website.
Although it is busy and a bit of a comedy of manners within, Shakespeare and Co has definitely made it onto my list of favourite bookshops.
Do you have a favourite bookshop and where in the world is it?