Exploring the Literary Haven: A Visit to Shakespeare and Company in Paris

The distant silhouette of Notre Dame Cathedral greeted us as we hastened our steps. Our long-cherished dream was now just a stone’s throw away from reality: a visit to Shakespeare and Company. It was a pleasantly cool day in late July in Paris, with the temperature hovering around 22 degrees Celsius. A gentle breeze caressed our skin as we checked our phones; the time read 13:55. The streets were bustling with pedestrians, and a symphony of languages filled the air. Finally, at Kilometer Zero in Paris, the famed bookstore came into view. Nestled at the corner, its cream-colored façade stood tall. This was reputedly the most renowned bookstore in the world, having served as the backdrop for films like “Before Sunset” and “Julie and Julia.”

Our attention was drawn to the queue that snaked its way outside. Yes, to enter, one had to wait in line. Most of the people in line were young adults. At the entrance stood a black-skinned man, acting as the gatekeeper. “When I was here last January, there was no queue. It was quite crowded, but we walked right in,” reminisced our eldest. Remarkable. In an age when many bookstores were closing their doors, gaining entry to Shakespeare and Company required patience and perseverance. Unlike ordinary bookstores, this was a popular tourist destination. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, Shakespeare and Company was not spared. It remained closed for two months during the lockdown imposed on France in March and April 2020. According to The Guardian, by October 28, 2020, its sales had plummeted by as much as 80 percent. “Like many independent businesses, we are struggling, trying to envision the future as we operate at a loss,” wrote the store’s management in an email to customers.

I recalled news about several bookstore chains in Indonesia closing all their outlets recently. In addition to the onslaught of digitization, the COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated their decline. I held back, not immediately joining the queue. Instead, I contented myself with observing from the outside. Dark green hues adorned the window frames and some windowpanes, as well as the canopy fabric. Amidst not-so-densely populated leaves, two trees stood in the courtyard. A bookshelf had been set up, actually in three sections. On the far left was the Shakespeare and Company Café. Glancing at the prices, they were on par with mid-range cafes in Paris. For instance, a cup of cappuccino was priced at 5 euros, roughly equivalent to Rp84,000. The most appealing seating was outside, with Notre Dame in full view. In the center, a section sold used books exclusively. Its space might have been just about 20 square meters. Chalk handwriting adorned the windowpane, recounting a fragment of this place’s history. My wife chose Umberto Eco’s novel “Foucault’s Pendulum” for a mere 5 euros. She also snagged a tote bag for 16 and 18 euros, the different prices reflecting distinct designs but equal fabric thickness.

“Is this queue only on weekends?” I inquired. “Oh no, during a summer like this, it happens almost every day,” replied the bearded shopkeeper. A free water refill station was conveniently placed nearby. Our youngest eagerly filled four bottles. In Paris, one liter of mineral water costs 2 euros. On the far right were the most crucial elements: the bookstore and library. This was where the queue led. At the entrance, a sign prohibited photography and videography. After approximately 23 minutes in line, we finally stepped inside. As my feet touched the interior, memories of the literary Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway flooded my mind. In his memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” he had a dedicated chapter about Shakespeare and Company. “I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop, and I did not have enough money on me to join the library. She said I could pay whenever I had the money. She made out a library card for me and said I could take as many books as I wished,” wrote Hemingway, recollecting his youthful days in Paris during the 1920s. The “she” he referred to was Sylvia Beach, the visionary behind Shakespeare and Company.

Hemingway quickly started borrowing books from the likes of Ivan Turgenev, D. H. Lawrence, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Even though there was no reason for Sylvia to trust him, Hemingway had given her an address on the poorest street in Paris, 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine. “She was very charming, very wise, and very funny. Behind her, higher up on the wall and stretching all the way over to the back room, there were shelves of the wealth of a library,” Hemingway recalled. Born in the United States as Nancy Woodbridge, Sylvia ventured to Paris, where she met her lover, Adrienne Monnier, who had already established a bookstore. Adrienne assisted her lesbian partner in founding Shakespeare and Company in September 1919. As time passed, Sylvia’s bookstore continued to thrive. A true bibliophile, she wasn’t driven by greed. She transformed Shakespeare and Company into a place of delight. Writers often gathered there to converse, to share stories, and even to sleep. Apart from Hemingway, other luminaries such as Andre Gide, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound frequented the store. In 1922, Sylvia even funded the publication of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a novel deemed too scandalous for major publishers.

When Germany occupied Paris in 1941, the store was closed as Sylvia refused to sell the last remaining copy of James Joyce’s novel “Finnegan’s Wake” to a Nazi officer. Shakespeare and Company might have faded into oblivion if not for George Whitman. In 1951, George opened Le Mistral Bookstore on Rue de la Bucherie, across from Notre Dame and just a stone’s throw from the Seine River. An American expatriate who admired Sylvia, George later renamed the store Shakespeare and Company in her honor after she passed away two years prior, in 1964. The store swiftly became a haven for writers of the time, with a new generation constantly visiting. It was now the turn of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. As I continued to explore, my sense of wonder deepened. Books were stacked on wooden shelves, nearly touching the ceiling. Piles of books adorned several tables. The remaining alleyways were narrow, easily leading to accidental contact with other visitors. Above one of the doors, the phrase “Not be inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” was inscribed. This phrase was also featured on one of the tote bag designs. Indeed, this bookstore was welcoming to strangers, especially writers. They were allowed to stay there under the condition that they help manage the store, read a book a day, and write about the bookstore. George continued the tradition of the previous era.

But what about taking photos and videos? If caught, surely a warning would be issued. However, there weren’t many attendants inside, providing ample opportunity for capturing memories. As I ascended to the second floor, I came across a small bed, purportedly where guest writers, affectionately called “tumbleweeds,” would rest. The bed was covered in red fabric, and nearby, small pieces of paper were affixed. These bits of paper bore messages and impressions from visitors in various languages from around the world. In another corner, a piano stood. A man, a stranger to me, was playing a piece. A note lay on the piano with the words, “Please play softly; merci de jouer avec douceur.” The scent of old books wafted through the air, but it wasn’t stifling. “I could spend a long time here,” my wife exclaimed. The second floor was a library; for purchases, you’d have to head downstairs to the first floor. My wife selected Milan Kundera’s first novel, “The Joke,” for 14 euros. Upon payment, a green stamp was affixed to the first page of the book—this stamp was highly sought after by visitors.

Today, the store is managed by George’s daughter, Sylvia Whitman. Speaking to The Guardian, Sylvia revealed that during the pandemic, they survived by dipping into their savings. Government aid had also been received, though it wasn’t of significant help. They had indeed seen dusk approaching, but fortunately, before night truly fell, the pandemic waned and disappeared. Now, it seems, the days have returned to sunshine, and Shakespeare and Company thrive once more. And so, I had the chance to fulfill my dream by visiting the “neighbor” of Notre Dame, which is currently undergoing renovation.