Famous the world over, Shakespeare and Company, an English Language bookstore in the heart of the Paris Latin quarter has served as an incongruous icon for book lovers for over 50 years. Shakespeare and Company, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, is a history of the famous Paris bookstore, the man who made it what it is, and the stories that have passed through it. It is beautiful, inspirational, and food for the soul, and I absolutely adored every moment I spent with it.
I think I first became aware of the existence of this iconic independent bookstore, oddly enough because it appeared in a film and not through some more literary means. The film, Before Sunset, was the follow up to amazingly fantastic Before Sunrise. In this film, Shakespeare and Company served as the perfect backdrop for the reunion of one my favorite cinematic couples. Jesse (an American) and Céline (a native Parisian), who met on a train outside of Vienna ten years ago, who like the books in the store speak solely in English.
At the time, I thought the store looked like an amazing place to spend a day (or twelve); it was a dark, tangled labyrinth of weathered books and stories in the midst of the City of Light. What wasn’t to love?
It was perfect, and probably, the result of an extremely talented set designer and definitely not a real place. I mean, after all, why would anyone open an English Language bookstore in Paris? However, shortly after I began writing this blog, my uncle (himself, like the store’s founder George Whitman, an American expatriate) who has lived in and/or visited nearly every country on earth, mentioned that I should take the time to check out his favorite bookstore: Shakespeare and Company, in Paris.
Needless to say, further prompting was not required, he had used the key words: favorite and bookstore. Adding Paris into the mix simply added that little something I cannot say, and so I set off immediately to learn more about a little store, on the other side of the world, that sells English language books, in the most famous French speaking city in the world.
As one might expect, the Internet is awash with photographs and travelogues chronicling people’s experiences and thoughts of Shakespeare and Company. A simple search on Pinterest alone may take you a week to wade through all of the results you receive, most of them incredibly similar, but all of them leaving you wondering what the story behind such a place might be. I am certain that anywhere with as much character and personality as Shakespeare and Company, must have a good story behind it, which only made me want to find a way to visit even more.
However, with four (college bound) children home, a trip to Paris is really not likely to happen anytime soon. So, I did what I always do when I discover a place I want to visit, but am unable to travel to, I went in search of a book, and hit the veritable jackpot when I discovered a book that not only satisfied my curiosity but also far exceed any expectations I had: Shakespeare and Company, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.
This book, published independently by Shakespeare and Company, is the perfect hybrid of memoire and scrapbook. An impression that is only supported by the reproductions of hundreds of photographs, letters, journal entries and autobiographies throughout the book. As a result, reading Shakespeare and Company, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, was like spending a wonderfully rainy afternoon in your grandfather’s attic going through dusty old photographs, maps, letters, and journals. Well, at least I suppose that is what it would be like if your grandfather is/was a world traveled, iconoclastic intellectual who opened up a bookstore in Paris just after WWII (and in doing so consequently met almost every person of literary note whom has put pen to paper since then).
Perhaps this feeling is somewhat natural given that this book represents the culmination of the 2 years Krista Halverson spent sorting through the thousands of pieces of personal correspondence, artwork, news clippings, poems, and journals, that George had uniquely, if not fastidiously, saved over the years. These treasures represented the residue of a life fully lived and allowed Halverson to slowly unearth and chronicle the life of George Whitman. For over fifty years, George may have slept in an apartment above but Shakespeare and Company, but it was clearly in the bookstore itself that he truly lived. But perhaps the biggest discovery she may have found in among all of the old wine crates, bureau drawers, plastic tubs, and hidden nooks was how inextricably linked the story of Shakespeare and Company and the man who opened it truly were.
George Whitman was a man who was dedicated to books, writers, and readers. This dedication in conjunction with his, stubborn, idealistic, generous, spontaneous, and fearless personality led him to live a thoroughly adventurous and exciting life that was punctuated as much by the events in it as by the people he encountered and collected along the way. Yet what most people don’t know, is that George was as outrageous and flamboyant as he was private and shy, a fact that Halverson manages to capture beautifully in this book that is as personal as it is discreet.
I absolutely adored every minute I spent with this book; from the moment I opened the front cover until I all too quickly reached its end. Shakespeare and Company, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, has everything one could ask for from a single volume: history, love, adventure, literary icons, Paris, well written prose, and memories, all alongside hundreds of vintage photographs depicting the store’s history and evolution from its humble beginnings to its modern international notoriety.