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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Shakespeare and Company
Paris. I had been visiting the city for a week without so much as a bon mot thrown in my direction, when, in a scene out of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, I knocked over a woman on a bicycle. It had been raining and her fall produced a good amount of mud on her coat. Trying to help get the mud off, I inadvertently brushed my hands across her chest. This did not help break the ice. She cursed at me and began picking up her produce, which had taken a nasty tumble from her bicycle’s basket. Trying to help again, I stepped on her tomatoes and kicked her lettuce across the street. Her amusement waned.
The lettuce had rolled all the way to the front of a bookshop and I quickly made my way to retrieve it. Resting before an outdoor display of secondhand paperbacks, the lettuce…okay you get the point. I was an ignorant tourist who had never heard of Shakespeare and Company, arguable the most famous bookstore in the world, and it took me elbowing down Amélie in order for me to discover it. Luckily, not everyone at Tin House is devoid of cultural sense, as displayed when our Paris editor and provocateur, Heather Hartley, takes us book clubbing along the Seine.
A Novel in Three Words: Shakespeare and Company
A Profile of Sylvia Whitman, Manager and Owner of Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris, France
“I’d like to speak with Sylvia Beach, please,” the caller said.
Lauren, resident photographer and one of the booksellers at Shakespeare and Company, turned to her manager. “You want to tell him or should I?”
Sylvia Beach, who opened the first incarnation of Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in 1919 on rue de l’Odéon, died forty-nine years ago.
“You can tell him,” answered Sylvia Beach Whitman. Whitman—who is in fact named after Sylvia Beach—is the young manager and owner of the present-day Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, which was opened in 1951 by her father, George Whitman, at number 37, rue de la Bûcherie, near the banks of the Seine on the Left Bank and across from the Cathédrale de Notre Dame. Now ninety-seven years old, George lives on the third floor of the seventeenth-century building. He continues to read the latest books, peruse the newspapers, and regularly come down to the shop to see how things are going.
Fittingly, Sylvia Whitman was born just across the street from her own bookshop. Petite, with pale blue eyes and curly blonde hair, she has a vivacious energy and an impressive enthusiasm for and knowledge of books in all shapes, ages, and forms. This passion is wonderfully contagious.
The atmosphere in the store is a mixture of excitement, bookishness, chaos, comfort, and calm. Lawrence Ferlinghetti—George’s dear friend, who encouraged him to open the shop back in the 1950s before Ferlinghetti himself returned to San Francisco to found City Lights Books in 1953—told Sylvia as a child, “You are Alice in Wonderland in this bookshop.” And so it is for the customer. On the ground floor, surrounded by books that reach up to the ceiling, you can choose to sit in a cozy corner to leaf through art books, to check out the latest fevered-pitch fiction titles on a large, overflowing table, to browse the Poet’s Corner, or just hang out and take in the other offerings—philosophy, history, cookbooks, graphic novels, plays, and more. “Her [Sylvia Beach’s] bookshop was a mecca for all Anglophone and French writers,” explains Sylvia Whitman in a video interview—and the same could be said of her own present-day bookshop. “[My dad] thought of her as one of the biggest role models for booksellers.”
The two Sylvias share much more than a name. Their respective independent Anglophone shops, both situated in the heart of Paris, have served as a great deal more than just a store to browse and buy new or used books: both have been homes to readers, artists, bibliophiles and–especially–to writers, whether emerging and well-known. Both bookshops have offered extensive lending libraries throughout the decades. And both have played and continue to play an essential and unique role in supporting and cultivating some of the most influential and provocative writers of their respective generations. As her father did, Whitman maintains well-stocked shelves of new, used, and antiquarian books, hosts weekly readings, holds Sunday tea parties in George’s apartment upstairs, and lodges young writers. At any given time, you may find four to six young writers, called Tumbleweeds, living in the shop. There are a few criteria to be a Tumbleweed: you must write your autobiography on one sheet of paper, work in the shop, dedicate some time to a writing project, and read a book every day. These are George Whitman’s edicts and they have not changed in more than fifty years.
He has described his shop as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore,” and for both George and Sylvia, it is imperative that books be available to anyone and everyone. As the shop is open 365 days a year, this poses no problem.
Beyond this idea—or ideal—of the shop as a utopia, Shakespeare and Company is the same as any independent bookshop in the world, from West Virginia to the West Indies: it is an integral part of its local neighborhood and by extension, of the ever-changing, fluid population of the city. It brings together residents, tourists, passers-by—it offers community. “There’s a sense of family with the people who work here,” explains Whitman in the interview, “but also with the people who come and visit and [with] the customers.”
In the five years since Sylvia Whitman took over, she has not only carried on her father’s legacy but has incorporated her own vision into the shop, renovating, innovating, and modernizing while preserving her father’s original dream. When she stepped in as manager in 2006, Whitman explains, the shop was “totally old-fashioned in a wonderful way. [But] we did, at that point, need a telephone.” In addition to computers and Internet access, she added a superior sound system that allows customers to listen to readings from anywhere in the shop. Whitman has hosted countless authors for readings—from Jeanette Winterson to Sir Alistair Horne to Jonathan Safran Foer to Marilynne Robinson, organized four biannual book festivals, resurrected Paris Magazine (a journal her father started in the 1960’s), initiated the Paris Literary Prize for the novella cosponsored by the de Groot Foundation, housed endless Tumbleweeds, and raised the shop dog, Colette.
The place is mesmerizing. From the beams to the books, the steep stairs to the profusion of titles and the shop’s long, rich history, it can make you tipsy. Whitman says that the shop “has a very strong atmosphere and soul,” and she is correct—it’s easy to fall under the dizzying, indomitable influence of Shakespeare and Company.