Readersforum's Blog

November 10, 2012

Turning the page at Shakespeare and Company

The ramshackle facade of Shakespeare and Co in Paris. Inset: proprieter Sylvia Beach Whitman

English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company is the most famous bookshop in Paris, and maybe the entire world – but it’s going through some changes. Telegraph Expat meets owner Sylvia Beach Whitman.

By Leah Hyslop

Paris is a city filled with spectacular sights. But tucked away on the Left Bank, in the shadow of Notre Dame, there sits a ramshackle English-language bookshop which any literature-loving tourist will be almost certain to make a beeline for.

Founded by American expatriate Geoge Whitman in the 1950s, Shakespeare and Company is the kind of quirky independent bookshop you’d be forgiven for thinking had long ago disappeared. Crowded, crooked bookshelves fill the maze of tiny rooms that once formed part of a monastery, jostling for space with fraying chairs, old mirrors and – in one one room – even a wishing well.

Perhaps more unusual, however, are the makeshift beds tucked between some of the shelves. For Whitman, an eccentric ex-serviceman who travelled around the world before deciding to settle in Paris, didn’t simply own a bookstore. What he created was, in own words, a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop”: a bohemian refuge where down and out, mostly expatriate writers could mingle, write, and even bed down for the night – all in exchange for a few hours’ work in the shop, and on the strict understanding that they read a book every single day.

Over the years, famous figures from William Burroughs to Lawrence Durrell and Samuel Beckett walked through the shop’s tatty doors. Burroughs used its medical textbooks to research The Naked Lunch, while Anaïs Nin left her will there. Rather less illustrious writers abused Whitman’s legendary hospitality: the story goes that one English poet famously lived there for seven years.

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