Paris, early 1980s: I was your standard-issue teen backpacker, clutching the requisite copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Shy. Bookish. Not terribly independent, but on my own nonetheless, on my first day in Paris.
I spent most of that first day sitting in the sun on the steps of Notre Dame, daydreaming and writing in a spiral notebook I’d bought at Gibert Jeune on Boulevard St Michel, and now, the sun was setting. If I’d paid more attention to my guidebook, or to reality in general, I would’ve realized I should have already secured a bed for the night.
I inquired at every youth hostel I could find, as night slowly fell. Shyly. In my best French. But no luck. Pas de chambres, the concierges all muttered, giving me barely a glance. No room at the inn.
My panic was rising when I finally noticed the faded yellow shingle of an English-speaking bookstore, tucked into a tiny, cobblestoned corner on rue de la Bûcherie. Outside, a slightly gaunt, middle-aged man who looked like he might speak English, was just closing up.
“Excuse me, sir,” I began, “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might know of a youth hostel that…
He cut me off with a scowl, and waved me inside his shop.
“You can sleep back there. With the others,” he said, pointing a bony finger at a dusty, carpeted back corner between the stacks. Someone else’s blue sleeping bag peeked out from a corner, neatly rolled. “The kitchen’s upstairs. But you have to work. Help clean the place, or, or, something.”
“You mean I can… stay here?”
But he’d already gone back out to finish locking up.
Relief and excitement spread through me like butter through a warm croissant. This man was gruff, but okay. I felt it would be all right. I was going to sleep in a bookstore in Paris! I’d found a strange port in a storm.
And I’d met George Whitman.
For three days, I stayed. I swept up, washed dishes, re-shelved books. Once I minded the till. Thank god no customer showed up, because I didn’t even know how to open it.
Up the creaky old stairs, in a minuscule kitchen, I hung out in a haze of smoke with other residents – like Australian Maggie, the street performer who made me chai in a copper pot and talked constantly about her young daughter – whom, the others informed me in stage-whispers, had tragically died years earlier. Or the young Indian man who ranted a type of crazy that came out like poetry. Two giggling German girls showed up – they only talked to each other, but they threw open the ancient kitchen window and washed all the cracked dishes in the sink for the first time in maybe years.
It was a fantastical interlude, one I’ve never forgotten. I barely set foot outside the tiny shop, those three days. I’d found a wanderer’s world of adventure inside its listing walls.
George first opened the shop in 1951, calling it le Mistral. But he soon became friendly with literary legend Sylvia Beach. Her original bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. on rue de l’Odéon, was a mecca for Lost Generation writers like James Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Picasso – the best of 1920s Paris culture.
The elderly Sylvia blessed George’s bookstore, and willed him many books when she died — as well as permission to use her prestigious store name. So le Mistral became Shakespeare & Co. in 1964. And it became a hotbed of literary bohemian culture in Paris.
Also, a pretty good place to sleep and hang out.
George died at age 98 in 2011, and since then, it’s been his daughter, the beautiful and beautifully named Sylvia Beach Whitman, who runs the show.
It’s still there, operating steadily, the dust and rabbit-warren of bursting shelves looking a bit improved upon. The carpet’s been updated, and now they sell “les tee shirts.” Richard Linklater has filmed there, as has Woody Allen. Sundance has even aired a documentary about the place called Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man. Here’s a hair-raising clip. The IMDb write-up describes an older, even more deranged George than the one I met in the early 1980s – a 92 year old George who’s spent a lifetime offering “free, dirty beds to poor literati, cutting his hair with a candle, and gluing the carpet with pancake batter. Illustrious guests include Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Jacques Prévert, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Welcome to the makeshift utopia of the last member of the Beat Generation.”
So, that gives you a small idea of what George was like.
There are other changes to the shop, these days. No one sleeps there anymore. You can’t visit Australian Maggie in the tiny kitchen and chat over chai, or hear poetic rants from random residents emanating over the stairs.
They are just ghosts, now, as is George himself, who died in bed upstairs when his time came. He lived his life in that bookstore. He was one soul who didn’t want to go out in the world with a backpack to prove himself. He stayed in, with his towering piles of books.And the world came to him.
Have you been to Shakespeare and Company? What bookstores around the world are your favorites? Have a Recollection of your own to share? Comment below to let us know!