There are bookstores and bookstores and bookstores.
Then there is THE bookstore.
Shakespeare and Company, located at 37 rue de la Bucherie in Paris (France, not Texas), faces the River Seine and looks out on the majestic flying buttresses of Notre Dame cathedral. I’m betting you’ve seen it, even if you’ve never been to Paris. Its unique façade has popped up in many a movie, including Midnight in Paris, Julie and Julia, and Before Sunset.
The rooms are small and crammed full with volumes old and new, not only on the many shelves but in piles on the floor. A steep staircase leads up to more little rooms full of reading treasures, and the steps themselves have even more books at their edges. Back when I was there the old man who owned the place made change out of an old cigar box. And there were several sleeping cats among the inventory.
That fine establishment offers an eclectic variety of good reads, but it’s particularly famous for its history. The present store is the reincarnation of one that was opened in 1919 on the left bank and was a favorite meeting place for a group of young writers and artists who gravitated to Paris when the smoke cleared from the horror of the First World War.
It’s always been a hub for any English-speaking folks living in that city; most of the books in its sprawling inventory are in English. People meet there to peruse the titles, to stand outside and chat, and just to stay in touch as strangers in a strange land. When I used to visit there, thirty something years ago, they left messages for each other on a small chalkboard mounted on the outside wall beside the window. “Need female flat mate, no funny business” was printed on it one time, with a phone number. Another time it was “Jeremy, made too much lamb stew. Come at six. Lisa.” Directly under it was “In desperate need of lamb stew. Please advise. Greg.”
Whenever I send people in the direction of that magical shop – and I encourage anyone with Paris on their travel agenda to go there – I suggest they purchase a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and get it stamped with the shop’s logo, a bust of Shakespeare inside a circle of words: “Shakespeare & Company – Kilometer Zero, Paris”. In that memoir of his time in Paris Hemingway devotes an entire chapter to that bookshop. He was very young, very unpublished, and very poor, with a wife and son to feed, so he couldn’t afford books. And a writer without books is a miserable creature indeed. He went every day, reading standing up or sitting on the stairs, and the owner finally took pity on him and started loaning him volumes to take to sidewalk cafes or to his flat.
In the original shop Hemingway spent time with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, poets T. S. Eliot and John Dos Passos, composer Cole Porter, painter Pablo Picasso, and other members of what Gerturde Stein famously dubbed the “Lost Generation”. All of them were, of course, destined to make enormous splashes in the world.
Maybe the biggest reason that I see Shakespeare and Company as the zenith of bookstores is the fact that it’s so far away that I can’t actually visit it often. In fact, the very real possibility exists that I never will again. Absence, you might have heard, makes the heart grow fonder.
But I know the little store is still there, brimming with books crammed into shelves, stacked on the floor, and spilling down those steep stairs. That chalkboard might have been taken down, now that everybody texts and emails to keep in touch. But I hope it’s still there too, filled with interesting messages. I almost took chalk in hand, on my last visit, to write “Ernest, please send secret of your genius, Ron.” But it was a small board, and I didn’t want to take up space from someone in need of lamb stew.
If you want to read more about Shakespeare and Company and the Lost Generation I recommend, in addition to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, author Morley Callaghan’s memoir That Summer in Paris and Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojurn at Shakespeare & Co by Jeremy Mercer.
And, of course, if you’re fortunate enough to actually visit Paris, you should go the store, browse through the stacks of books, look out at the river, and let me know if the little chalkboard is still in place.