The story of Shakespeare and Company, a purveyor and part of literary history

IN THE world of bookselling, Shakespeare and Company is peerless in its fame and influence. Just shy of a century since it first came to be, they begin formally publishing works under its own eponymous imprint. The first book to be published by the legendary Parisian institution is, fittingly, a memoir of the shop itself. But tucked within the pages of photos, letters, diary entries and anecdotes is one recurring question: could literary lightning strike again? Or is the intimate relationship between bookseller and author that has made Shakespeare and Company so legendary ill-fitted to the realities of publishing and bookselling today?

When we talk about Shakespeare and Company, we are often talking about two distinct bookstores. The first to be opened under the now-iconic name, on rue de l’Odeon in the Latin Quarter, was founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and became a second home to F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and other anglophone writers. That iteration of the shop was forced to close in 1941 following intimidation by German soldiers. George Whitman opened the Librarie le Mistral on the rue de la Bûcherie in 1951; Beach offered him the “Shakespeare and Company” name in 1958. It cemented its place in the popular imagination as the rightful inheritor of the famous bookshop’s legacy.

That legacy included some publishing, along with numerous other ways large and small that Beach supported the writers who often populated her bookshop. Patronage has been the calling card of Shakespeare and Company from its earliest days, whether through the lending of books to the penniless or letting travelling writers stay in the shop for free (an estimated 30,000 young writers and artists have slept in the shop since it opened its doors). When others shied away from publishing the already banned “Ulysses”, Beach offered to release Joyce’s novel herself. She didn’t stop there, either: she worked with her network of writer allies to smuggle it into America and Britain. Later she championed Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts, introducing him to a private publisher. 

Whitman wasn’t quite so hands-on with publishing, although two literary magazines came into being from within the shop. The first, Merlin—founded by editors Alexander Trocchi, Christopher Logue and Richard Seaver—was started in 1952. The magazine co-existed with the Paris Review as a leading English-language literary review, publishing Jean-Paul Sartre and establishing Samuel Beckett as a writer to watch. Whitman himself also started a literary review called the Paris Magazine in 1967, publishing in its inaugural issue writing by Allen Ginsberg, Sartre and Pablo Neruda. It was created with an eye to recreating something in literary culture that Whitman felt had been lost; “unlike the big anonymous publications,” he wrote, “we can at least go back to the days of personal journalism when a poet, carpenter, bookseller, printer, and journalist…would publish manifestos or set the type for his own book of poems.”

Nostalgia has always been a prominent element of literary culture, one that simultaneously allows for woeful lamenting about the future and harkening back to a time that was more amenable to writers. Shakespeare and Company has become synonymous with those supposed halcyon days, a place where the greatest writers of the 20th century could come together in unassuming comfort. But Whitman’s words suggest that even mid-century, the sort of space Shakespeare and Company sought out to create was rare. In the decades since, it has only become more uncommon.

Bookshops have had a hard time in the past few decades. While publishing and literature has been subject to undue eulogising over the centuries, our changing relationship with reading in the digital age has meant that the physical spaces where books reside—be it libraries or bookshops—have been subject to cuts and closures. In Paris alone, Village Voice and La Hune, fellow beloved independent bookshops, have closed in the past five years. In America, 1,000 bookshops closed between 2000 and 2007. In Britain, around one-third of independent bookshops have shut, according to the Booksellers Association.

It is difficult to imagine a bookshop with such a range of offerings for writers opening today. Not only are bookshops unenviable businesses to run, but the demand for the space is not there either. Writers no longer need to congregate in one location to find community; Literary Twitter is a digital stand-in for the salons of old. The internet has provided endless opportunities for writers to self-publish their work, and the growing number of online-only review websites suggests that the literary community is adapting to the web age. 

It may be less romantic than a Left Bank bookshop haunted by the ghosts of Hemingway, Anais Nin and James Baldwin. We may not want to think of writing as individuals tethered to computers, rather than grouped around one physical table arguing and shaping 20th century literature over wine, Whitman’s Irish stew and piles of books. But as “A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart” makes clear, Shakespeare and Company was always an anomaly. Since it opened in 1919, it was always meant to be one of a kind.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. By Krista Halverson, Sylvia Whitman and Jeannette Winterson. Shakespeare and Company Paris; 384 pages, $34.95 and £26.97


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