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Shakespeare and Company:  A literary treasure in the heart of Paris, France

Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France
  Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz  / CC BY-SA 2.0 

With 2016 marking 400 years since The Bard’s passing, William Shakespeare even gets a mention in the heart of Paris, France, at a historic and fascinating book shop named Shakespeare and Company.

The shop has a long history. It was back in 1951 that an eccentric American by the name of George Whitman decided to open a book shop in the centre of Paris with ambitions of creating a literary hub in France’s capital. Whitman reportedly had communist leanings and wanted to create a space where he could welcome all writers to stay as his personal guests in Paris at the book shop, at that stage named Le Mistral.
Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France
Photo by Jim Linwood/CC BY 2.0

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.— George Whitman

The store is still located on the banks of the Seine, opposite Notre-Dame today and changed its name to Shakespeare and Company in April 1964, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth.

While travelling in the country, Oliver’s Travels offers many lovely properties, including these villas in France, but anyone staying near Paris and with a literary bent should spend at least one night – or at the very least a visit – at what is these days dubbed Shakespeare and Company, right in the heart of the City of Light.

The book shop’s motto has been painted over an inner door on the second floor and reads wisely, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise," a rather endearing welcome to potential literary guests. It was the place to be for Anglophone writers and readers and soon became a Left Bank literary institution.
Shakespeare and Company motto
Photo by Erica Ashleson CC BY 2.0

The building was constructed in the early 17th century and was originally a monastery, La Maison du Mustier. George at one stage said he used to like to pretend he was the sole surviving monk, saying, “In the Middle Ages, each monastery had a frère lampier, a monk whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I’m the frère lampier here now. It’s the modest role I play.”

The rules were relatively simple. Guests – nicknamed “Tumbleweeds” by Whitman – would be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, but each of them was tasked with reading a book and writing a one-page autobiography during their stay, possibly on the typewriter pictured below, and had to help out in the book store for an hour or two each day.
Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France
Photo by Melissa Delzio/CC BY-NC 2.0

Back in the 1950’s the shop was a much-loved base for many writers of what was dubbed the “Beat Generation,” including Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin, among many others. 
Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France
Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz/CC BY-SA 2.0
Accommodations were simple, with 13 beds, concealed as bookshelves by day and sleeping the writing guests at night. 

According to Whitman – who called the shop “a socialist utopia masquerading as a book shop” – as many as 40,000 people have slept in the revered book shop over the years.

Shakespeare and Company: Still going after all these years

Over 50 years down the line George Whitman is no longer with us, but his daughter, Sylvia, has taken over the daily management of the book shop and the traditions still continue, as the newly dubbed Shakespeare and Company has become a utopia for literary travelers, seeking an unusual place to stay in Paris.

Besides selling books and offering simple accommodations to weary travellers, the bookshop holds regular activities, including a popular Sunday tea, writers’ meetings and poetry readings.

Shakespeare and Company has since even been in the movies, when the shop was featured in the Richard Linklater film "Before Sunset" (Ethan Hawke actually slept over in the book shop) and in the Woody Allen film "Midnight in Paris."

Well-worn stairway at Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France
Photo by charis337/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Located at 37 rue de la Bûcherie at Kilometer Zero – the point at which all French roads begin in Paris, France – Shakespeare and Company now has an official website and has even modernized to include an online store. However, the store itself retains its original outward and inward appearance and décor, including a set of well-worn and travelled stairs.


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