Epic stories

Published on June 29th, 2016 | by Melissa Welham

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A night in Paris’ Shakespeare & co bookshop

Read time: a bit over 6 minutes

The streetlamps outside are shining through my window, silhouetting the shadowy face of Virginia Woolf that has been painted on the glass. The lights across the Seine shine white on the water, but the lamps closer to my window cast an orange glow across the walls of bookshelves in my room; illuminating the gold and silver foil on the spines of old tomes, and the protective plastic wrapped around second-hand hardbacks.

When I last checked the time, it was 2.00am. Standing in front of the window, I can see the face of Notre Dame – that grand old dame – staring back at me. Curled up on a rug at my feet is Colette, the bookshop dog, who is spending a night in the writer’s studio.

I’m Tumbleweeding at Shakespeare and Company – which means sleeping inside the bookshop in return for a few hours work – but for one night only there are no other Tumbleweeds. I’m completely alone in an empty bookshop, floorboards creaking, wind whistling outside, and a light mist of rain falling on the shining streets of Paris. The whole city is laid out like a feast.

Shakespeare-and-company, Paris

Shakespeare-and-company, Paris

In these moments it’s easy to see why so many writers have been inspired by the City of Light; why Hemingway wrote, “All Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

The bookshop Shakespeare and Company is as much a part of the literary history of Paris, as the books of French and expatriate writers that are stacked in haphazard, towering piles on its shelves. It has actually been the name of two bookshops on Paris’ Left Bank over the years.

The first bookshop, founded by a woman named Sylvia Beach, was a meeting place for writers in the 1920s such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce. In fact, Beach was the first to publish Joyce’s controversial Ulysses back in 1922. The shop was closed during the Nazi occupation of Paris in the 40s, and Beach herself would spend six months in an internment camp. The shop never reopened.

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Flip the history book pages forward a decade to 1951, and American wanderer George Whitman opened a new bookshop at Kilometre Zero: the point at which all Paris roads begin, under the shadow of Notre Dame. He first called the shop Le Mistral, but changed the name in 1964 as homage to Beach’s original store. Like the first Shakespeare and Company, the shop became a meeting place for writers – this time members of the Beat generation, including Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, with customers like Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Whitman passed away in 2011, but before he died he passed the shop onto his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman – named for Sylvia Beach – who has been keeping the spirit of the shop alive and kicking since.

Shakespeare-and-company, Paris

George Whitman once told The Paris Magazine: “Like many of my compatriots, I am something of a tumbleweed drifting in the wind.” In his early 20s he had travelled widely, often relying on the kindness of strangers. This shaped his life philosophy, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”, a phrase that is now painted onto the walls in Shakespeare and Company. When he opened the bookshop he put this philosophy into practice, and started letting readers, writers, students, artists and weary travellers sleep among the stacks. These temporary inhabitants were known as Tumbleweeds – and it’s a tradition that Sylvia continues to this day.

In return for lodgings – sleeping under piles of books, and on beds that convert into reading seats for customers during the day – Tumbleweeds have to help out in the shop for a few hours each day, read “a book a day”, be working on their own writing, and complete a one-page autobiography before they leave the sanctuary of the store. Shakespeare and Company now has an archive of over 30,000 such autobiographies from previous Tumbleweeds.

George Whitman once said that the shop was a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.” Sitting in the Sylvia Beach Memorial Library in the shop – an impressive collection of books that any customer can read, spending an afternoon soaking up the weak spring sunshine that filters through the window – you can feel that community.

You can also almost feel the presence of the famous writers and thousands of Tumbleweeds who have silently worked and read in the shop before you. The stories of the young writers­, outlined in their one-page autobiographies – their hopes and their confusion and their romances – feel as much a part of Shakespeare and Company as the stories for sale on the shelves.

Wandering around an empty bookshop at night is exactly as romantic – in the literary sense of the word – as you might imagine. The walls are stacked floor to ceiling with books, and the red tiled floors (no doubt this convenient colour has hidden many a Tumbleweed’s red wine spillage over the years) are cracked in places, but have been polished smooth by thousands of footsteps. Each room in the shop has its own personality.

Shakespeare-and-company, Paris 4

Shakespeare-and-company, Paris

There’s the piano room, which houses non-fiction books. During opening hours, amateur and practiced musicians alike will come in to play the out-of-tune piano, to an audience of whoever happens to be in a room at that particular time. Sit on one of the couches reading for long enough and you will undoubtedly hear the musical score to the French film Amelie. Come back night after night, and you might eventually be surprised by an impromptu concert from students at the nearby Sorbonne, whispering huskily over a subdued guitar, reminiscent of Françoise Hardy.

Next to the piano room, is the poetry nook. A ‘day bed’ for sitting and reading (a Tumbleweed’s real bed at night) is framed by dark red velvet curtains, and edged by a mirror wall. The mirror, stained and tarnished, is completely obscured by the notes people have stuck to it over the years; love letters, mostly. Love letters to past and future selves, love letters to the bookshop, love letters to literature, and love letters to actual lovers.

Further onwards is the library room. A writing desk and an old chair, with slashed upholstering, sits right in front of the window with a view onto the Left Bank of the Seine. An only-sometimes-working typewriter is placed at the centre of the table – it feels like something of a performance space for solitary writers, an invitation to bash out as many words as you dare in public.

And everywhere throughout the shop, the walls are painted with the quotes and pictures of literary figures; stylised portraits of Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald and more. Above one doorway, a collection of children’s book characters peer out from behind novels, Alice tea-partying next to a creature from Where The Wild Things Are.

Painstakingly painted up each step of the staircase, a Hafiz poem: “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”

Large, bold letters across a step as you enter the store declare: “Live for humanity.” (It’s a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore, remember.)

And then in the circular fiction room, a small strip of text is sticky-taped to a shelf near Vonnegut’s novels: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

I agree, Vonnegut.

I spent only two weeks sleeping at Shakespeare and Company – other Tumbleweeds have stayed much longer, and others less – but in just two weeks I met a rotating cast of interesting, earnest, passionate young writers who impressed and intimidated me in equal measure. Every person you meet is on their own journey; looking for inspiration, looking to extend the boundaries of their life.

The tumbleweed is a perfect metaphor for what goes on in the shop, and not just because the youths who reel through are usually travelling far and wide. A tumbleweed – in the plant sense, not the sleeping-in-a-bookshop-drinking-wine sense – is rootless matter rolling through the landscape. It relies on the support of the wind – helping hands. It drops seeds as it goes, spawning new life – new thoughts taking hold.

Sleeping in Shakespeare and Company, you can’t help but be inspired. It’s as if the words waiting inside the books on the shelves sneak off their pages in the dead of the night, and madly batter themselves against your skull. You read your book a day, or try to; you work on your writing project, when you’re not drinking wine on the banks of the Seine; you have earnest discussions with the other Tumbleweeds about literature, and also genre fiction, and also Scandinavian refugee policies, and probably also Kim Kardashian and the politics of body hair; and you absorb the mythology of the bookshop through your skin.

This is the beauty of Tumbleweeding. You put down roots for only a moment, and soak up what Paris has to offer in its soil: the literary history, the ongoing tradition of supporting cultural endeavours, the stories of the 30,000 wanderers who have been in this bookshop before you. You soak up as much as you can. And then you drift on.

Feature image c/o Heather Anne Campbell, Flickr 

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About the Author

Melissa Wellham usually works as a writer, content creator and social media consultant; but at the moment she’s avoiding being an adult and travelling overseas for a bit. Unemployment suits her very well, thanks for asking. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @melissawellham.



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