There are two kinds of tourist attractions in Paris: first, the sights everyone knows about, even those who have no interest in Paris (the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower are examples); and second, the sights that everyone who’s looked into what to see in Paris knows about, but outside of that are not necessarily household names. I would place the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, in the second category. It is internationally famous. But while the name might have a familiar ring to many, I wouldn’t expect absolutely everyone to know what is it without explanation.
Image by Sierra Maciorowski from Pixabay
Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookstore in Paris. It’s a bit amusing that an English bookstore would be a tourist attraction in French-speaking Paris, but it is—and after all, many English-speaking writers lived in Paris in the interwar years. The original Shakespeare and Company was a gathering place for well-known English-speaking writers in the 1920s, and while that original store closed in 1941, the current version of Shakespeare and Company is an homage to that original store.
And there’s good reason it is a tourist attraction. It’s not just rows and rows of stark shelves, like your average Chapters chain store—it is the cozy bookstore of novels and movies and your dreams. It has two storeys full of books, with shelves stretching to the ceiling, and ladders to reach all the shelves. It has cozy reading rooms to sit and leaf through the books in, with pianos you can play to switch up the mood. And it has more than just those standard bookstore features: it has a wishing well in the floor where you can insert coins, with a sign that says, “Feed the starving writers.” It has a nook where tourists write little notes on scraps of paper and leave them behind for others to read. It has the words “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise,” painted on the wall. And the bookshop lives up to this inscription by allowing writers to bunk among the bookshelves in exchange for helping out around the shop. More than 30 000 “tumbleweed” writers have actually done this over the years.
This is such a unique and interesting landmark that I had to incorporate it into a story, which is why it features in Paris in Clichés. But of course I also had to see it for myself when I was in Paris. I actually found myself going back to it more than once—not only because the smell of books and the feel of a bookstore is incredibly enticing. I found that I needed to hear English once in a while after struggling on my own with mangled French for several days in a row. I stayed in Paris for two weeks, and I think I went back at least three times. It was in this bookstore that I read the first several chapters of World War Z—not the first novel you’d associate with Paris, but for me it is intertwined with my memories of the place!
Here are a few photos which I took (explaining the poor photo quality!), to give you a feel for the place. Enjoy!
And if you want to explore more, do not miss this great illustrated guide of the store, complete with maps! An Illustrated Map Inside Shakespeare and Company:
Posts in this series:
- Paris is Still Always a Good Idea
- Berthillon: An Astonishing Ice Cream Shop on the Île Saint-Louis
- Bateaux Mouches on the River Seine
- Eiffel Tower
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