July 18, 2014

French Friday: Shakespeare & Company

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." - Ernest Hemingway

Melinda at Shakespeare & Company, 1994
Author's Note: One of my first blog posts featured the iconic Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Company. Since the Paris in July series encourages bloggers to review their favorite books about Paris, here are my reflections on the book I purchased at Shakespeare & Company twenty years ago.

As a student in Paris, I spent countless hours at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop on the Left Bank. I loved browsing through endless stacks of books, marveling at the lovely chaos. Before returning home, 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 shop isn't the original Shakespeare & Company. It 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, and although in 1944, Hemingway personally "liberated" his favorite haunts including the Ritz Hotel and Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore never reopened.

I don't know if Hemingway ever stepped foot inside this shop at 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, 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, 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."

I visited Shakespeare & Company again 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 sipped my wine, I thought about how lucky I am have been in Paris as a young woman and to have returned so many times. Hemingway was right; it does stay with you for the rest of your life!