Shakespeare and Company: an old Parisian English-language bookshop opens its own Café – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Located in the heart of the Quartier Latin on the left bank of the Seine, facing Notre Dame Cathedral the Shakespeare and Company bookshop is the epicentre of the Anglo-Saxon literary life in Paris since its opening in 1951. It was not the first English-speaking bookshop to open and there are other ones today in Paris, but thanks to its charismatic creator George Whitman it has always been the meeting point for famous or unknown Anglo-Saxon writers.
The very first Shakespeare and Company shop was created by Sylvia Beach in 1919. She was a bookseller and publisher, born in 1887 in Baltimore. During the interwar period her shop gathered prominent literary talents of the time: Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot or James Joyce as well as French writers. “A Moveable Feast” by Hemingway constantly refers to Sylvia and the active literary life of her shop.
As a publisher Sylvia Beach was the first one to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses at a time when the book was forbidden in the United State and in UK. Her bookshop was one of the very few places where readers could buy Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that was then seen as an outrageous novel.
George Whitman open his first bookshop called “Le Mistral” in 1951, at 37 rue de la Bucherie, and it was not before 1964 that it was renamed Shakespeare and Company after Sylvia Beach’s death. They had met before and she had agreed to let him use the same name for his shop.
1964 also was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’ death. Whitman was born in New Jersey and travelled the world before settling down in Paris in 1948. From the beginning he not only intended to open a bookshop but he also wanted to create a gathering place for avant-gardiste writers such as Henry Miller, Richard Wright or William Burroughs.
The Shakespeare and Company was, and still is, a shelter for aspiring young writers who in exchange for a few hours of work in the shop and a one-page biography get a bed on the 3rd floor of the shop for a few days… or for several months. It is said that over the years Whitman collected over 50.000 of these biographies! He called these writers his “tumbleweeds” and you will meet some of them when visiting the shop. The Shakespeare and Company also is an active centre of Parisian cultural life with literary meetings every Monday, concerts and children’s hour on Wednesdays.
Even if you’re not an avid reader you should nonetheless pay a visit to the shop. Located on the left bank of the Seine and offering a spectacular view over Notre Dame cathedral, it stands on a small square where a typical Parisian street lamp and one of the famous Wallace fountain will give you the opportunity to take emblematic pictures of Paris. Close to the shop, go to the René Viviani Square surrounding the beautiful Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre church, a greek melkite catholic church standing in the shade of the oldest tree in Paris. This locust tree was planted in 1601 and even if it needs strong concrete struts fortunately half hidden with ivy, it still bravely flowers every year.
The bookshop is now managed by Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter, but the spirit is still the same. Recently Sylvia Whitman was able to fulfil one of her father’s dreams opening a café in the shop next door. This place used to be a stationary store and had been closed for 20 years. It has been restored to create the café but the 1970’s floor tiles and the ancient stone walls have been preserved. Even the former garage doors have been reused as… bookshelves! There are 15 seats inside and 30 seats outside, the perfect place for a perfect moment having a cup of coffee while enjoying the view over the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris.
But unless many places where you pay for the décor and not for the food the Shakespeare and Company Café offers carefully chosen produce. Coffees come from Café Lomi renowned for its quality craft-roasted coffee beans, teas are elaborated by the ethically producer Postcard Tea and juices are always freshly squeezed. The organic food are mostly vegetarian. They are made by Marc Grossman from the successful Bob’s Bake Shop and you’ll have to make your choice between a tempting selection: hand rolled bagels, brownies, scones with cream, sourdough crumpets, American style baked goods… not to forget gluten free dishes and the famous George’s Lemon Pie made according to George Whitman’s recipe.
Shakespeare & Co now combines food for the brain with food for the stomach: a good book along with a good snack in a great setting, who could ask for more?
Shakespeare and Company, 37 rue de la Bucherie, is open everyday from 10am to 11pm
Shakespeare and Company Café, 2 rue Saint Julien le Pauvre, is open from 10am to 6:30pm from Monday to Friday, and from 10am to 7:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays
Text © Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Photos © Frederic de Poligny