December 19, 2011

Shakespeare & Company

C'est moi - Shakespeare & Company 2002
(Is that Mr. Whitman in the window?)
This week, George Whitman, the owner of the renowned Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, passed away at the age of 98. I have spent so many hours in this curious shop, browsing through endless stacks of books, marveling at the lovely chaos.  In 1994, I purchased a copy of A Moveable Feast at Shakespeare & Company just to receive the "Kilometer Zero" stamp on the title page.  As a graduate student studying literature, it seemed the perfect souvenir of my own time in Paris: Hemingway's memoir of strolling through the same narrow streets of the Latin Quarter, of visiting some of the same cafés, and of Shakespeare & Company.

A hopeless romantic, I ignored the fact that this isn't the original Shakespeare & Company. This isn't Sylvia Beach's legendary lending library, frequented by Lost Generation writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and of course, Ernest Hemingway. The original shop, that famously published James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, was located at 12 rue de l'Odéon. It closed in 1940 during the Nazi occupation of Paris. When the war ended, Hemingway personally "liberated" his favorite haunts including the Ritz Hotel and Shakespeare & Company, but the bookshop never reopened.

I don't know if Hemingway ever stepped inside 37 rue de la Bûcherie. Opened in 1951 and originally called Le Mistral, it didn't become Shakespeare & Company until 1964, three years after Hemingway's death. Yet I still imagine those ex-patriot writers as I wander through that musty maze of old books, sleepy cats, and aspiring poets and novelists.  Perhaps in my romantic musings, I overlooked the true importance of this current establishment.

Le Mistral became Shakespeare & Company when Sylvia Beach passed away, willing both the iconic name and most of her private book collection to George Whitman. For over fifty years, he and his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, have continued Ms. Beach's mission to support aspiring writers. The Whitmans have offered meals and lodging to over 40,000 travelers, including Henry Miller, Richard Wright, Anaïs Nin, and the Beat poets. In return, they have asked lodgers to work two hours in the bookshop and to read one book each day. Canadian journalist, Jeremy Mercer, pays tribute to the bookshop in his memoir, Time Was Soft There : "Hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter....Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I'd ever felt."

The last last time I visited Shakespeare & Company was last April.  After lighting a candle in Notre Dame cathedral and deliberately stepping on Point Zéro to ensure my return to Paris, I crossed the Pont Saint-Michel to the rue de la Bûcherie. It was a lovely afternoon -- fresh and bright with the clichéd but precise allure of Paris in the springtime -- so I didn't go inside.  Instead, I browsed through the books on the sidewalk, washed my hands in the Wallace fountain, and had lunch at the café next door.  As I watched people take their requisite photos in front of the bookshop, I remembered how inspired I felt each time I came to Paris, each time I visited Shakespeare & Company.  

After I returned from Paris last spring, I began writing this blog.