food / travel

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

WORLDCRUNCH

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 already overcrowded 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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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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