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An Iconic Paris Bookshop's Old-School Recipe For Surviving The Digital Age

On the Left Bank, the Shakespeare and Company bookshop is a place where the physical book – and all the humanity that goes into it – is fighting to survive. Aspiring young writers are still offered bed and board: the only condition is that they read a boo

(christine zenino)
(christine zenino)
Roxana Traista


PARIS - Books are simply everywhere: piled on the dark wooden shelves, lying scattered along the windows, rising perilously in high towers of literature, they look as if they are somehow propping up the ceiling. You couldn't be farther away from Barnes & Noble – Or a Kindle.

Sitting or standing in the narrow passages, young and the not-so-young people are patiently waiting for the event to begin. A skinny, bald man approaches the microphone. "It is an honor for me to be in one of the greatest book shops in the world," he says. "This must be one of the most crowded readings that I have ever attended."

Robert Olen Butler, an American writer and Pulitzer prize for fiction winner, should not be surprised:events at the legendary Parisian book shop Shakespeare and Company are as crowded as ever, and like today, often spill onto the benches outside.

Situated on the Left Bank, just a few steps from the Seine and Notre Dame, Shakespeare and Co. is hard to miss. Like any other cultural institution of its kind, this independent English bookstore inevitably pops up on most tourists' must-see lists, or in travel guides. Movies filmed in the French capital often feature the bookshop's bright yellow sign (see Woody Allen's latest).

Some visitors come for the endearingly messy manner in which books fill the space, able to drift through the rows of shelves, maybe even for hours, in search of a title -- a living reminder of just how aseptic chain stores have made the modern book-buying experience.

Most clients walk through the two-story shop – whose rooms bear mysterious names such as The blue oyster tearoom, or The old smoky reading room – with broad smiles on their faces and cameras in their hands, as if the place was a museum. Indeed, perusing the piles of books, you will inevitably come upon ancient-looking typewriters, or the dark red-board box where writers are invited to sit and put their best thoughts down.

Founded in 1951 by George Whitman, an American from Salem, Massachusetts (now 97, and still living in the 3rd floor apartment above the book shop), the store is currently managed by his daughter, Sylvia. Indeed, Shakespeare and Co. has always been more than a place where books exchange hands.

"Selling books is our livelihood, but our main aim is to encourage people to read and write," says Lauren Goldenberg, Sylvia's personal assistant. Shakespeare and Co. does this by hosting reading events every Monday evening, but also by opening the door to aspiring writers, offering them free accommodation.

Snuggling up with books

As hard as it might be to believe, Shakespeare and Co."s alreadyovercrowded sections make way every night to tiny beds, sometimes as many as six at a time squeezed in among all the books. It was George who first came up with the idea 30 years ago, convinced that the "tumbleweeds," as the young writers staying at the bookshop are called, could benefit from spending some time in the heart of Paris, amidst its cultural effervescence. Every day, "he would be standing in front of the shop, inviting in passersby – especially the pretty girls," Lauren says.

As the bookshop's reputation grew, word of mouth was enough to bring hoards of potential tumbleweeds knocking at the door. Most are allowed to stay – the only conditions are that they read a book every day, give a hand in the shop at opening and closing hours, and write a short story for the bookshop to keep.

Lauren doesn't think that the "Tumbleweed hotel" offers particularly comfortable accommodations, with its lack of privacy and common bathroom. But people are attracted because "Shakespeare and Co. is such a great place for meeting people, and helps make Paris a welcoming city where leading a creative lifestyle is so easy."

Emily, a freckled 20-year-old with long auburn hair, is one of the tumbleweeds currently staying at the shop. She is a student in Philosophy, who happens to also hail from Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. Emily, who didn't want to give her last name, decided to come here after a friend recommended it to her as the best place on Earth for aspiring writers. Emily describes the bookshop as a very "intellectually stimulating place where everyone is a writer," a place that encapsulates the "poignant beauty of Paris."

In the cozy atmosphere of the bookshop, as the sounds of people talking in whispers mixes with the the tolling bells of Notre Dame, the march of electronic books over conventional ones suddenly doesn't seem so inevitable. Amazon might be selling more e-books than paper ones, and computer screens might leave little time for the slow turning of pages, but the book shop's bright, colorful covers still beckon at passers by.

Even so, Shakespeare and Co. is not resting on its laurels. Under Sylvia's direction, the store launched in 2008 a biennial literary festival and has awarded, on June 17, its first literary prize for a novella written by an unpublished author (the award came with a 10,000 euro check). Lauren Goldenberg is convinced that the landmark that George Whitman created more than 50 years ago is strong enough to survive for years to come. "We can't help but persevere in believing that books are not dying. And Shakespeare and Co. is certainly not going anywhere."

Shakespeare and Company – 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Paris

photo - christine zenino

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