The history of the shop is pretty well known, but it’s a story worth telling nonetheless. The shop was opened on this site under the name Le Mistral in 1951 by an American called George Whitman.
We have an amazing position across the Seine river from Notre Dame. George decided to open a bookshop because it represented everything that was important to him – books, authors, reading and writing. Over the years, George welcomed many distinguished authors, principally writers from the Beat generation like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who founded City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, and Paris-based anglophone writers like Anais Nin, Henry Miller, and James Baldwin. They were all part of the life of the shop in those early years.
George changed the shop’s name in April 1964 in celebration of William Shakespeare’s four hundredth birthday. There were other reasons too. He wanted to honour Sylvia Beach, who’d died in 1962, and who’d owned the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop round the corner that had closed down during the Occupation in the Second World War and never re-opened. She’d been a customer of George’s, and he had the impression that she thought of his shop as the spiritual successor of her own.
One of the things we’re most famous for is our tumbleweeds, the young writers that come to live in the shop. When you visit us you’ll find there are beds scattered around the different sections. We’ve had around 30 000 tumbleweeds stay over the years. The only conditions George imposed on them was to write a one page biography, all of which we’ve kept, and to read a book every day, and later on they were asked to help around the shop. At the moment we have three tumbleweeds staying in the shop – fewer than in the past, when George might have up to 25 people staying at once. Some of them have gone on to become famous like writers Alan Sillitoe, Ian Rankin and Kate Grenville, and the director Darren Aronosky. Some other people who visit the shop are already famous – we had Ethan Hawke here recently giving a talk about his book Rules for a Knight. That was a fun case of life imitating art, because the film Before Sunset features him giving a reading in the shop. But what’s important about the tumbleweeds isn’t whether they’re famous or not – they’re part of what makes the shop a living breathing thing.
There’s a quotation from George that illustrates this really well,
“I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.”
He liked to think of us as a socialist utopia disguised as a bookstore. George passed away more than four years ago now. His daughter, Sylvia, is in charge, and we all still try to be led by George’s vision today.
We stock a wide range of books, and the vast majority are in English. We’re in a city where there are around 1000 independent bookshops selling books in French, so that market is very well served. We tend more towards literary fiction, and we have extensive poetry and philosophy sections. Our Parisian history section is really big but we also stock histories of other regions of the world. We recently extended the shop, opening a new, expanded children’s section. It had been an ambition of ours for a while, and when a new space became available in the next street, attached to the shop, we leapt at the chance. We’ve knocked the wall through and have a lovely children’s hobbit hole at the back of the shop.
On the first floor we have George’s library. Those books aren’t for sale, they’re for people to enjoy here, to spend the afternoon reading. We also invite different groups to use the space, local reading groups, for example, or language exchange groups. We want people to feel like they can come here and use the space, and not just buy books. Our customers are drawn from three or four different groups. The Anglophone community in Paris are well-represented here and people often say we’re their first port of call when they move to Paris, for getting in touch with other English speakers here. Our history and location also means that we have a lot of tourists visit us. French readers are increasingly wanting to attend events here or meet English speakers, and also buy books in English. We have a new, fourth group of customers as almost exactly a year ago we relaunched our website, and so now we have online visitors as well. The books we sell online can be personalized with the shop’s stamp, which is quite iconic, and when people are buying books as gifts, or mementoes of their trip, they’ve been choosing to have them personalized and sent directly from Paris.
We’ve worked really hard to make the website an extension of the shop, with podcasts, videos, photo galleries, curated book shelves by our booksellers and guest speakers, as well as the personalization service. We’re trying to develop the site in the spirit of the shop, so people can stay in touch with us even if they’re not in Paris.
2015 was a year of transformation for the shop. In many ways , the biggest and most surprising changes that have taken place happened just in the last 12 months. We’d planned for the extension of the shop with the children’s section and the website, but something we weren’t expecting at the beginning of the year was to open the Shakespeare and Company Café.
A space next door to the shop that had been unused for many, many years suddenly became available. In central Paris real estate is in high demand, and so it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up, particularly because in the late 60s George said he wanted to open a café and even had sketches made up of how the café would look next door. One of the things he specified was very good lemon pie, which we have.
The café was opened in collaboration with Bobs, who have a few different cafes and restaurants in Paris, and so the food and coffee is really healthy, which fits very well with the spirit of Shakespeare and Company. We sell books in there too. One of the biggest compliments people pay us about the café is when they say that it feels like it has always been here.
There are always challenges, but for us, going forward, for the next few years we’ll be adapting to our new staff, our new organisation, and all the logistics that the transformations we’ve undergone involve. But whatever happens we still want to be a vibrant, book-loving community. We have a history, and we value that, but it’s also important to us that we’re not seen as an old-fashioned bookshop. We still want to be relevant, to set an agenda, to exist in this digital age, and not just rest on our laurels and become a dusty tourist attraction.
We spoke to Adam Biles, Events and Communications Manager at Shakespeare and Company.
Shakespeare and Company is at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris, France
Tel: +33 (0)1 43 25 95 93