Sunday, October 24, 2010

Shakespeare & Company: The bookshop that thinks it's a hotel

By Clare Dwyer Hogg in The Independent, Saturday, 23 October 2010

Book lovers' paradise: Shakespeare & Company is a constant merry-go-round of books bought and books sold - Photo - Richard Pak

When William Burroughs wanted to research his book Naked Lunch, he was in Paris. So he went straight to the Rue de Bucherie on the Left Bank, through the doors of the bookshop Shakespeare & Company, and directly to the bookshelves of the American bookseller George Whitman. There, he found stacks and stacks of hefty medical tomes, along with just about every English language paperback of note you could want. Burroughs has long gone from this world, but Shakespeare & Company has not. It is still perched on the same cobblestones on the bank of the Seine, overlooked by the Notre Dame. And if Willy Wonka were to take time off from chocolate concoctions and open a bookshop, this is what it would look like.

At Shakespeare & Co, there's not enough space for a stockroom, so it's a constant merry-go-round of books bought and books sold; tourists flock here to take photographs of the higgledy-piggledy interior, with books stacked from floor to ceiling. This is the place, after all, where in the Fifties the Beat poets hung out, and, more recently, where Ethan Hawke is filmed in the opening scenes of cult movie Before Sunset (and, indeed, where Meryl Streep in last year's Julia & Julia was seen to wander, in search of a cookbook). There's a wishing well in the floor that holds a plenteous supply of coins; in times gone by, it had a gas pipe which owner George Whitman was inclined to light on occasion (once, the story goes, when he was feeling particularly rakish, he accidentally set a hair-model's long tresses on fire). Upstairs, at the top of the winding staircase, there are all sorts of places for readers to loll. One room is a library, with literary donations to Whitman from Simone de Beauvoir's personal collection, and an eclectic selection of his own books – what remained, anyway, after a horrendous fire a number of years ago destroyed thousands of words. That's the room with a piano (and a fire extinguisher). When I visit, most customers aren't shy about playing it; although one man, too bashful to perform, is unable to resist sitting at the stool – he mimes playing for 10 minutes, fingers never touching the keys.

In the Fifties, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and a crowd of Beat poets made pilgrimages here, to the bohemian beacon of literature and licentiousness that promised a free home to travelling writers, aspiring or renowned. Whitman presided over his free-wheeling enterprise with an impressively prominent goatee, a critical eye, and a (mostly) open-door policy. From its inception, though, the labyrinthine bookshop was always more than just a place to buy a novel. It was a temporary home for writerly waifs and strays who tumbled in, slept among the bookshelves when the shop was closed, and wrote and wrote until they tumbled out again. George called them his "Tumbleweeds". He wanted people to have a place to stay when they came to Paris, to have a window on the world, a home from home in a strange city, even if they had no money in their pocket. His motto, "Give what you can, take what you need" was the creed of what became known as "Hotel Tumbleweed", a philosophy on life that was as radical then as now.

The rest of the story at The Independent.

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