Since the fifties, Shakespeare and Co. has stood on the brink of the Seine, protected from the passing of time by its owner and founder, George Whitman. But with the turn of the century and the passing of George, the utopian bookshop and shelter, left the 60’s and nostalgia behind and jumped into 21st century without loosing its soul.
Alex Freiman is a friend of the owner Sylvia, and a long-time staff member. Amid colorful lanterns and groups of people talking in front of the bookshop, with a glass of champagne in one hand and an appetizer in the other, I follow him into Shakespeare and Co‘s history.
A Utopia in the Heart of Paris
The bookshop is legendary and so is its founder. In 1951, George Whitman opened this then small bookshop and soon renamed it Shakespeare and Co. This name was an homage to Sylvia Beach, an American born woman who had her own bookshop until the Nazis forced her to close it during the French occupation. From this period, George Whitman inherited the spirit of her bookshop, the books she managed to save – they are on display on the first floor of Shakespeare and Co. – and the name he gave his own daughter, Sylvia. George died a few years ago, at the venerable age of ninety-height, but the bookshop is still standing, and so are its traditions. Because Shakespeare and Co. is not a simple bookshop. It has been much more than that, for as long as it has existed.
A Writer’s Shelter
“Writers, musicians, all kinds of people come through here. It’s quite a fascinating place! George Whitman used to live here on the third floor. And I know that for Sylvia it’s like her place, her home… It feels like coming to someone’s house,” explains Alex Freiman. The shop certainly tries to maintain this homely atmosphere: beside its inherent charm, the walls that are not occupied with shelves and books are covered with notes from tourists, staffers and writers, who have been finding a home at Shakespeare and Co. for generations…
George Whitman loved books, but more than anything, he loved writers and artists. And because he sought their company, it wasn’t long before he started hosting five or six of them in his shop, sleeping amongst the books on bunk beds. They soon came to be known as Tumbleweeds and they stayed, for free, sometimes for years, helping a bit, reading a lot, and writing at least one page of autobiography for George who collected them. Just as Sylvia Beach had sheltered the Lost Generation, George sheltered the Beat Generation. Everyone stayed at Shakespeare and Co. at one point or another: Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg… George welcomed all of them. “He was an eccentric and he had a very strong personality,” notes Alex. During the sixty years he managed the bookshop, George never seemed to really organize anything. Books were arranged randomly, no one seemed to know the price of anything but somehow the bookshop kept on going.
Getting over the 60’s…
“The shop used to be much more quiet, more low key” explains Alex, “like something that could function in the 60’s or the 70’s…” When her father got old, Sylvia took over. She has been trying to keep a difficult balance between tradition and modernity since then. She kept the Tumbleweed system – “We have, almost at all times, about three to five people staying with us, for periods of times that can range from a week to a few months” notes Alex. The shop has nevertheless changed a lot during the last five years. Following up on one of George’s dream, Sylvia managed to open a café next door. “George designed it, really wanted it to happen so Sylvia and her husband David made it happen” smiles Alex.
It’s not the only addition that has been made to the antiquated store. The shop was reorganized, books indexed logically and sections created for fiction, theater, poetry… “We literally had to push the walls to accommodate the children’s section!” remembers Alex. While Shakespeare and Co. has lost some of its former bric-a-brac atmosphere in the process, the shop is still crooked, bursting with books and authors notes.
Overcoming the Nostalgia
“Human beings are nostalgic,” admits Alex, “and even more so with a place like this where they have some strong memories: not only of the place, but also of their youth and of a time that is no longer the same.” Because the place has grown up, it needed to be more structured, it couldn’t work in an anarchist way anymore. But this structuring is not always well received: some miss the good old days and have trouble accepting the fact that this once chaotic, tumultuous place, is getting in line. “There still are the elements that make this place what it is (at least for me)” ponders Alex, “the atmosphere, the literary community, the tumbleweeding…”
Shakespeare on Social Media
And accepting modernity does have some advantages. Shakespeare and Co. is now well known around the world and is easily found on social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr: you name it they are on it. Their Facebook page is kept up-to-date (as is their website) with the latest events and projects. In 2016, a four year project finally succeeded in the form of a book called Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. It took this long to go through every Tumbleweed biography and every piece of paper George Whitman had stashed in his apartment on the third floor: poems, letters, notes, novels, artworks… from people like Anaïs Nin, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Noam Chomsky or Graham Greene.
So yes, George Whitman is no longer here cutting his hair by burning it with a candle, the archives and the books are in order and there are no more hidden notebooks from famous writers… This era is over. And as painful as it may be for those who knew George Whitman and Shakespeare and Co. back in the days, the new version of the bookshop still keeps the important traditions going on. The place is still packed with books from famous authors and some who can’t get a publisher, writers are still staying there for free, and readers and tourists are still coming to get a sense of how it used to be. Because even though the bookshop has changed, its original spirit is still here, and you can feel it.