Most people go to Paris for the romance, the fashion, the pastries, the perfume, the underwear. Me? I go for the stationery. Don’t get me wrong, all that other stuff is a huge draw (especially the pastries – I am an éclair fiend), but it’s the smell of leather and the feel of high quality writing paper that really makes me weak at the knees. Not to mention books. Oh, books. The musty smell of ageless wisdom. The dry, papery feel of adventure. Endless possibilities wrapped up in a myriad of coloured covers. Books are my first love and most loyal companion.
You can see, then, why I might get a little bit excited about visiting Paris’ most notorious bookshop, Shakespeare and Co.
I knew it by reputation, of course, having devoured a Vanity Fair profile of the shop a few months earlier, but, astonishingly, I’d never managed to see it with my own eyes. I wasn’t about to let a third visit to the French capital fly by without a trip to book mecca. Shakespeare and Co. was firmly on my Parisian schedule.
Nestled on the Left Bank, just across the Seine from Notre Dame, Shakespeare and Co. is a literature lover’s dream.
Founded by George Whitman in 1951, the shop is now owned and run by his daughter Sylvia. It has a history of providing a safe haven for struggling writers coming to the city (dubbed ’Tumbleweeds’ by Whitman), by striking up an irresistible bargain – a roof over your head and a quiet place to write in return for a few hours behind the tills. Evidence of this continuing tradition is visible in the battered futon in the corner of one of the rooms, the tiny writing desk nestled between shelves, the unshaven man wandering around with a half-drunk cup of tea, seemingly oblivious to the crowds of tourists pushing through the corridor behind him.
As indicated by the reference to Britain’s most famous author in the shop’s name, Shakespeare and Co.’s shelves are stacked with familiar, English-language titles, as well as translations of classic French authors and guidebooks to Paris.
The 17th-century building that houses these books is reminiscent of a long-gone past, a beatnik, romantic version of Paris reserved for black and white films. The whole place has an aura of hushed reverence; even the queues of tourists shuffle through the narrow walkways with a calmness not found at any other Parisian attraction.
Everywhere you look there is something new and intriguing. A piano with a note encouraging customers to sit down and play. A white cat snoozing on a leather chair in the reading room. A pinboard covered with photographs. The place is full of stories.
I had friends waiting so was forced to tear myself away, but it’s the kind of place to which you could easily lose whole days – if not weeks.
Hell, they’ve got mattresses. Why not stay forever?