v29 #3 Wryly Noted — Books About Books

by | Jun 23, 2017 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  John D. Riley  (Against the Grain Contributor and Owner, Gabriel Books)   

Shakespeare & Co, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart.  Edited by Krista Halverson with a foreword by Jeanette Winterson and an epilogue by Sylvia Whitman.  (ISBN: 979-10-96101-00-9 Published 2016 by the Bookshop Itself.)


The original Shakespeare and Company bookshop was founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and it operated both as a bookstore and a lending library.  It is most famous for acting as a salon for the “Lost Generation” and was a regular haunt of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.  Sylvia Beach even published Joyce’s Ulysses when no other publisher would touch it.  That first incarnation of the bookshop closed in 1941 when Paris came under Nazi occupation and never opened again.  Under its inspiration, George Whitman opened a bookshop and lending library named Mistral in 1951.  That bookshop changed its name to Shakespeare and Company in 1964 with the blessing of Sylvia Beach.  It also happened to be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.  This book is the story of that shop.

Everyone has an image of Shakespeare and Company in their mind, whether they have been there or not:  Sylvia Beach chatting with the half blind James Joyce, the Shakespeare head logo at Kilometer Zero Paris, or perhaps they have a personal memory from a visit there.  George Whitman had a unique approach to running his shop, which he characterized as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”  And it certainly lived up to that name.  Whitman (purportedly a distant cousin of Walt Whitman) let visitors live in the shop in exchange for a few hours of book shelving or counter work.  He called these visitors “Tumbleweeds” and also required that they read at least one book a day and write a two page autobiography.  These brief autobiographies make up nearly half of the book.  The shop was open nineteen hours a day, seven days a week and during that time you could find spontaneously performed live music, poetry readings, and general cavorting by members and hangers on of the Beat Generation.  Whitman knew Lawrence Ferlinghetti from when he was a student at the Sorbonne and his bookshop was the inspiration for Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookshop in San Francisco.  

Besides the Tumbleweeds’ autobiographies, which consist largely of their experiences at the bookshop and in Paris, there is an illustrated retelling of the history of Sylvia Beach’s shop.  The book is full of many color photographs and paintings from George Whitman’s shop and reminiscences written by Whitman himself that were originally meant to make up his autobiography “Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart” taken from a line of William Butler Yeat’s poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

One key to the bookshop’s success, other than Whitman’s bibliomania and generous heart, was the fact that there were no public libraries in Paris at that time.  George operated a lending library as much to make a little money to keep the shop afloat as to not part with his precious collection of books.  He also kept the shop in the black by selling the books of Henry Miller, which were banned in the U.S.  and Joyce’s Ulysses, which was still banned in Ireland!

This is a book for anyone who loves books and literature and bookshops.  Shakespeare and Company is the Shakespeare of all bookshops.  Luckily for us the shop is still open and is now run by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia.  When she took over in 2002 she made vast improvements to the shop, such as bringing in a cash register to replace the wooden cash box that served for over forty years and she added a telephone to replace having to run out to the pay phone booth to make calls.

Those of who have been lucky enough to visit recall the unique qualities of that iconic bookshop.  I remember entering the shop one cold November afternoon in 1971 and being offered a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau by George Whitman.  I had him all to myself that afternoon and he generously told me stories of Samuel Becket who was a regular customer and a favorite author of both of us.  I half expected to see Beckett come in the shop while I was there.  I too took inspiration enough from George Whitman to eventually open my own bookshop which I named the Madeleine in honor of the time I spent in Paris that winter.  

I never got to live in the shop, much to my regret, but I have heard many stories from those who did.  In the 1960s a friend of mine bunked in the free lodging space upstairs of the shop with Eldridge Cleaver who was on the lam from the police and the courts back home.  

George Whitman passed away in 2011, two days after his ninety-eighth birthday.  He lived by his twin credos:  “The book business is the business of life,” and “I’m tired of people saying they don’t have time to read.  I don’t have time for anything else!”

I hope you too can read this wonderful book and that you too take inspiration from this one of a kind literary treasure.  


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