By Kate McBride
The view from the front window of the ramshackle bookstore looks out past a few trees to the river Seine and beyond to Notre Dame, towering high on the Ile de la Cité. No. 37 rue de la Bûcherie is home to Shakespeare & Company, a Parisian writers’ and readers’ institution whose longtime owner, American-born George Whitman, lived in a third-floor apartment above the shop until his death last December. Before George, the neighborhood, one of the oldest in Paris, was occupied by a monastery.
According to George, the name and the spirit of Shakespeare & Company were given to him in 1958 by Sylvia Beach, the owner of the original Paris bookstore of that name. Opened in 1919, Beach’s store moved to 12 rue de l’Odéon in 1921, where it became the center of Anglo-American literary life in Paris, a favorite haunt of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and many others. Forced to close the store during World War II, Beach never reopened it.
Several years later Beach announced she would pass on the name (and spirit) during a reading by Lawrence Durrell at the bookstore George Whitman had opened in 1951, at the time called Le Mistral.
Beach and Whitman shared a belief in operating their businesses as lending libraries as well as retail bookshops, providing a place for authors and poets to congregate and present their work, and even a place for them to sleep and eat. Beach died in 1962. According to Whitman, in her will she left a number of books from her private collection to him, and the legal rights to the name Shakespeare & Company. When his only daughter was born in 1981, Whitman named her Sylvia Beach Whitman—when you meet Sylvia Beach II today, it feels as though nothing has changed within the literary landscape of Paris.
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