Just around the corner from Notre Dame on Rue de la Bucherie, Shakespeare and Company, the celebrated bookstore, library, shrine, and make-shift hotel, welcomes readers, writers, and flaneurs for rich cultural encounters with the printed and spoken word. Officially recognized by the City of Paris as part of its cultural heritage, this bookstore founded in 1951 by George Whitman is now owned and operated by Sylvia Whitman, daughter of that amazing gentleman who was born in 1912. For over half a century, Whitman's establishment has offered support and hospitality to writers both famous and obscure. Named in honor of the bookstore founded in the 20s by Sylvia Beach which first promoted the works of James Joyce and Ezra Pound, Whitman's shop continued the tradition of providing encouragement to the expatriate writers and would -be writers who streamed to Paris in the post-war period. George still offers hospitality to students and literary drifters who are allowed to stretch out their sleeping bags after closing time and to read their works to the public on Monday nights. Although I am not staying here while in Paris, I have been invited to read from my novel The Etruscan.
Shakespeare and Company is open from noon till midnight, and the setting up of the "shop" for a day of business is a ritual to behold. A small crowd gathers on the pavement, huddled in the cold, waiting for permission to enter this temple of the English language. Lodged in a 16th century monastery, with a faded portrait of the Old Bard above the green shuttered windows - the place looks more like an old English pub until the great shutters are folded back to reveal book-crammed windows - with first editions of Anais Nin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti displayed in front. The bustling staff scurries about, dragging boxes of second-hand books out to the street, filling up empty shelves outside the shop. They remind me of stagehands preparing for a performance.
Returning later in the evening for my reading, I am ushered up a cracked and narrow wooden staircase to the upstairs rooms. The low ceiling beams are pockmarked with woodworms, charred by the fire which devastated the place in 91.Everywhere there are musty books packed onto sagging shelves and yellowing photographs of Whitman with his close friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Yet this is no museum, but a living library with people, young and old, sitting on benches or on the worn arabesque rugs, browsing through volumes not for sale, but feely accessible to anyone who would like to consult them.
Headlights of cars along Quai de Montebello flash by in the night but inside in this sanctuary, people sit ,quiet and attentive, waiting for the reading to begin. The atmosphere is layered with the palpable presence of writers who have read or spoken here, by the audiences who have gathered to listen over an arc of fifty years. There's almost an awesome hush in the room, ready to receive the sound of new voices.
I am preceded by a young writer and actor, Patrick Goddard, with brilliant delivery style,whose work could not be more distant than my own. The venerable John, in charge of the reading series, introduces us and our books, asks perceptive questions, and then lets us each read for about half an hour. A unique institution, Shakespeare and Company goes "Au rebours," against the grain. It has managed to stay afloat despite the fluctuations of literary publishing, fires, zoning laws, and skyrocketing property values, while the rest of Paris becomes a museum for well-heeled tourists. To read here is to take a place in a chain, to participate in a tradition. The emphasis is not on selling and promoting books as products, but on preserving and transmitting a living link between writers and readers, between books and those who love them.