Paris for me will always be a haunted city. Ghosts linger in the streets and behind gauzy living room curtains. There are narrow streets lined with buildings and cafes. But this is a city with so much depth. It invites one to pay attention, to see the ghosts in plain sight. My regret is that I have yet to experience Paris alone. Only then can one absorb the history, the shadows. I have experienced Paris only when accompanied by a large group of students. I’ve missed the subtle nuances of light and sound while focused on whether or not we forgot someone at the Louvre. As we boarded the plane for home, it was I who wished to be lost and left behind.
So to say that I enjoyed reading Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Krista Halvorson, would be an immense understatement. I was enraptured with the book, a collection of journal entries, letters, reflections, history and pictures, lots and lots of pictures. I studied each and every photograph like an ancient manuscript. I soaked up the interiors and the street life of this old book shop nestled across from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I missed visiting this landmark in person on my travels with students—why? I must have walked by it several times as Notre Dame is on literally every trip itinerary. Keeping up with teenagers is simply too overwhelming. So alas, I have never set foot inside the beloved institution, and that is something I will have to live with until I can rectify the situation in the future.
The story of the shop is well-known. In 1919, Sylvia Beach, an American in Paris, decided to open a book shop. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and all the other ex-pats stopped in to read and browse along with many other writers and artists. The Nazis forced Beach to close during the Occupation, but after the war, another American, George Whitman, a distant relative of Walt Whitman, relaunched the shop at its current location. This was 1951, and the world was coming back to life again after that bloody and tragic world conflict. The location, 37 rue de la Bucherie, is there waiting for the next round of book lovers making a pilgrimage to Paris. George Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, named for the original owner of the book shop, is now in charge. George died in 2011. Sylvia keeps her father’s tradition of leaving the door open for visitors—they can shop and browse, but also sleep among the books and partake of the store soup pot. Shakespeare and Company is an institution, a chapel dedicated to the religion of the book. All are welcome.
The writers, artists and readers who choose to bunk between the shelves and around the books are called “tumbleweeds,” a term George coined during his days. He let thousands of people stay over the years if they would agree to help out for a few hours in the shop, write a one-page biography to leave behind in the files of the store, and read one book per day.
The book about the book shop begins with selections from George’s journal when he was a younger man traveling the world. He is a wise and poetic writer, although he definitely classifies himself as a reader first. And like every bibliophile, he is interested in everything—astronomy, history, mythology, fiction, poetry. Sciences to humanities, George absorbed it all.
“There are so many great books in the world,” he writes, “all of them islands in the infinity of man’s ignorance.” In his journal, George sees himself as a traveler, a human being in perpetual motion. “A vagabond lives and dies many times and is reincarnated into new worlds,” he says. This sounds like an excellent credo for a full life, and George Whitman had a very full and colorful life.
The book also includes memoirs from some of the tumbleweeds. Winslow Eliot speaks of a mystical encounter with a wise stranger in a corner of the shop—not George Whitman, evidently. After a discussion about science, philosophy, literature, the man said, “What is essential is how you respond to any of life’s challenges. Whether you are fortunate or unlucky, whether you decided to wage a battle or to stay home and raise children—whatever your life is like, it’s responding to it with dignity and love that matters. And then to write about it from your heart.” This, of course, is the noble job description of any writer or artist.
In his later years, George’s eccentricities began to interfere with the health of the shop, so George’s daughter, Sylvia and her partner took over the day to day running of the business and shepherding the expansion projects into nearby spaces and apartments as they became available to be remodeled. George still puttered around, still offered pungent analysis of his twenty-first century customers. “I’m tired of people saying they don’t have time to read,” said this patron saint of books and reading. “I don’t have time to do anything else!” George Whitman would probably not have much use for social media, unless it helped him put more books into readers’ hands.
We have lost the communal civil society of the neighborhood book shop, and frankly, the internet is a poor substitute. What great ideas could be conveyed in 140 characters? We have become skimmers and speed demons when it comes to consuming texts online. We want to cut to the chase and absorb wisdom by osmosis rather than by deep reading and thinking. America as a reading culture seems misidentified as well. Maybe Shakespeare and Company is a phenomenon that could only have happened in the intellectual dream-life of Paris. In France, they put philosophers on television for public discourse. But I could be underselling American life and thought. We are a country founded on a strong and prevalent work ethic, but I for one would give up my right arm to have a Shakespeare and Company in my neighborhood. The only shop even close to that was Dutton’s and they disappeared long ago. If only we could be so blessed and lucky to have a book shop with the likes of George Whitman and Sylvia Beach down the street. For now, we must make due with a pilgrimage to the book shop across from the gargoyles and the Seine and feed some euros into the cash register to keep the dream alive. And we can buy this book.