Sep 16 2013

Alex in Wonderland – Shakespeare and Company

ShakespearesIts about the journey, not the destination.

Alex, my eldest daughter, was exploring a rather rambling bookshop on the left bank of the Seine yesterday.

The bookshop was a tangle of small rooms, connected by steep staircases, and all overflowing with books. Out of a small door in one of the rooms came a rather eccentric young Paris madame. “Come in here. That’s right, in you come”, she said, and whisked Alex into one of the back rooms of the shop. To her surprise, Alex found herself part of a Sunday afternoon tea party.

Sylvia, for that was madame’s name, insisted that Alex read aloud what she had written to the assembled group. Alex protested that she didn’t have anything to read.

“Nonsense. Of course you do. Out with it”.

Sylvia was not to be denied. And she was right. Alex did have her journal in her bag, which she obediently read.

Was this a Mad Hatter’s tea party? Had she met the Red Queen?

‘Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore, was opened in Paris in 1919 by American Sylvia Beach (as you will see, not the same Sylvia that Alex met) It became a gathering place for expatriate writers, and in the 1920s became the epicenter of Anglo-American literary culture. It was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. James Joyce used it as his office. You could buy a book such as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, too naughty for Britain, and Sylvia Beach herself published Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ in 1922 when he could not find another publisher.

In 1940, the bookshop fell victim to the German occupation (I guess English books weren’t welcomed by the Nazi’s). Sylvia was interned during the war, but managed to keep her books hidden.

In 1951, another expatriate American called George Whitman opened a bookstore at 37 rue de la Bucherie. It also became a focal point for literary culture in bohemian Paris, and was frequented by many Beat Generation writers, such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. When Sylvia Beach died in 1964, she left her books and the name ‘Shakespeare and Company’ to George. He must have been very grateful, because in tribute he named his shop after her shop, and later named his daughter after her. The store continues to operate in the same location, steps from the Seine, and a short walk from Notre Dame. Like its predecessor, it is a regular bookstore, a reading library, and a home for young writers. You’ll often find people curled up asleep in a corner of the shop, but if you are a writer and willing to work for a couple of hours a day you may be able to use one of the 13 beds. George said that over 40,000 people have slept in his shop over the years. He described the bookstore’s name as “a novel in three words”, and called the venture “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”.

George’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, took over the running of ‘Shakespeare and Company’ in 2003. George died in 2011 at the age of 98. Sylvia runs the bookshop in the same style as her father. It was this Sylvia who gathered Alex into the Sunday afternoon writer’s tea. With genes like her fathers, she will be fostering the careers of young visiting writers for a long time yet.

You must call in and say ‘Bonjour’ when you are next in Paris. You’ll find ‘Shakespeare and Company’ just across the river from Notre Dame.

You never know, you may also fall down a rabbit hole into a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

What I Learnt On 16th September in other years

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