Aug 18, 2011

by English Muse

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:

Shakespeare and Co
Shakespeare and Co - June '11
Shakespeare and Co - June '11

“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. 


This entry was posted on Thursday, August 18th, 2011 at 12:58 pm. It is filed under Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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15 Responses to “An afternoon at Shakespeare & Co., Paris”

  1. i too was recently in paris. this bookstore was the reason for my visit. i went there everyday to experience the magic that was left behind by some of the greatest writers of the english language. they still have beds there for visitors to sleep in along with a magnificent collection of sylvia beaches books! i’ve dedicated my whole education to modern literature because of this store. thanks for sharing it. i don’t think people know what a major role it has played in literature.

  2. Leni says:

    OMG, I always wanted to go to Paris just to visit this bookshop! After I read the books by Beach I dreamed of browse thru the shelves of Shakespeare and Co. 🙂 thanks for the post on this lovely historic place, greetings from Germany. You made my day ( and it started off with the dentist 🙁 )

  3. Karolin says:

    I love that bookstore! And I really like that the owner let people live there, and all the photographs. Gah, now I want to go to Paris right away!

  4. chrysso says:

    OMG – i just posted a pic of myself outside this bookshop on my blog. its such a sweet place. ck 🙂 x

  5. Hannah says:

    love that bookshop and love this post


  6. Tina says:

    you are so cute! what serendipity!!

  7. Tina says:

    Hah! I’m sorry about the dentist! I’m so happy you liked my post!

  8. ta says:

    I love this blogpost! What a great story.

  9. Tina says:

    Thank you!! xox

  10. Jess Lucas says:

    I also was in Paris recently and I had wanted to find this place but we were so busy that it slipped my mind. . . .. then on the last day, about a hour before we had to leave we stumbled across it. . .. Magical 🙂
    Jess x

  11. Candice says:

    Oh thanks for featuring my pictures you’re so so so nice ! 🙂

  12. Tracey says:

    Gosh, these photos are beautiful … and what a wonderful bookstore, complete with its own story. 🙂

  13. Laura says:

    It is such a nice bookshop – it’s full of treasures. Luckily I can become a frequent customer when I move to Paris in October!

  14. Thea says:

    My mum used to work there! It looks so beautiful, the photography is stunning. I’m saving up to go to Paris for the first time soon I hope. These are very inspiring to stop shopping and start saving! Thea xx

  15. I was there this summer! I wish I had more time actually in it, but alas, no!

    According to my Rick Steves Paris book (yes I am that much of a geek), the pretty green water fountain in front of the bookstore was “one of the many in Paris donated by the English philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace. The hooks below the caryatids once held metal mugs for drinking the water.”

    …and it matches the green paint on the woodwork of the store. Ah, Paris!

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