In 1951 on Paris’s Rue de la Bûcherie, American George Whitman opened an English-language bookstore called Le Mistral. The shop quickly became the center of literary culture in Bohemian Left Bank Paris, filling the void created when Sylvia Beach’s beloved Shakespeare and Company was shut down during World War II.
Upon Beach’s death in 1962, Le Mistral’s name was changed to Shakespeare and Company, and now the histories of the two stores have blended into one.
Paris photographer and blogger Candice Lesage spent the day there recently, capturing the spirit of the old bookstore:
“I was walking in Paris (more especially near St-Michel) with Cosima, I couldn’t help but take pictures of this marvellous bookshop,” Candice recently wrote on her blog. “I think this is one of my favorite spots in Paris, it’s full of books – and most of the time, there’s too many people as well.”
The original Shakespeare and Company has a wonderful history. As with all great beginnings, it involved love:
American-born Sylvia Beach came to Paris during World War I to study the French literature she adored. There, she also met the woman who would be her great love, Adrienne Monnier, and found the occupation that would become her passion–bookselling and publishing. Monnier was one of the first women in France to own a book store and lending library, Maison des Amis des Livres, which specialized in that country’s modern literature and was gathering place for Paris’ literary avant garde. Beach took a $3,000 gift from her mother and opened an English language counterpart across the street at 12 rue de l’Odeon.
She called it Shakespeare and Company, and even though the original store has long been shuttered, it remains perhaps the world’s most famous book store. During the great creative ferment between the wars, Shakespeare and Company became a refuge and meeting place for the English-speaking writers drawn to Paris–Hemingway immortalized it in “A Moveable Feast”; James Joyce, T.S. Elliot, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein were regulars and members of the lending library.
Shakespeare and Company was where they came for books, to pick up their mail, to meet and listen to one another and for Beach’s famously sympathetic ear. (All writers, she once said, like best to talk about their troubles.) If for no other reason, Beach and her book store deserve to be remembered for a single courageous act: In 1922, she published a book no regular publisher was brave enough to touch–Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, “Ulysses”, one of the greatest of all 20th century novels.
Shakespeare and Company fared badly during the Great Depression and, in the late 1930’s, was on verge of going under, when the great French writer Andre Gide organized a series of dazzling readings and lectures there and sold all the 200 available seats for each event by subscription, all proceeds going to Beach.
Many of the world’s greatest contemporary writers took part and the series remains a legend on the Parisian literary scene.
Shakespeare and Company closed when the Germans interned Beach during World War II. Even though Sylvia Beach never reopened her store, she remained in her beloved Paris until her death. She was happy, honored and well-loved, one of the brave and open minds that illuminated the City of Lights.