We all have favorite places to hang out. In Jackson, those who know me can find me upstairs at Broad Street Bakery, near Lemuria Books. It’s my favorite indoor spot. Outdoors, it’s either our lake-house at Darden or a deer stand at the farm. That is another post.
I’ll miss Broad Street and Lemuria. But in Paris, there will be other favorite spots. To start, I land in a bookstore known widely, Shakespeare and Company. Popular with tourists and locals, its setting and history make it a perfect spot to lose one’s sense of time. Perched on the Seine and across from Notre Dame, it beckons people to enter, browse, or rest in its cramped cafe. For lovers of books and history, the hours fly by in its tight corridors. Is it too crowded or touristy? Not for me, not by a long shot.
I first read about Shakespeare and Company in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. There, it was immortalized as part of the feast that is Paris. I recommend the book, and believe it’s one of the great titles in publishing. Even though I anticipated the bookshop being a primary destination, back then, in 1995, it was different. There were fewer people. In fact, my first foray into its aisles was on a Sunday, and no one was there. I had the place to myself. The man who ran the store (perhaps Mr. Whitman – keep reading) was quite old. He’d been there his entire life. I discovered, in barely passable French, that he actually knew Hemingway. After all, it had only been 70 years before. His life had been one of literary history.
In post World War I of 1920’s Paris, in the time of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein, the bookstore was different. It was the first of its kind, an actual bookstore, set near the cheap book vendors alongside the Seine. These vendors had occupied the sidewalks by the Seine for centuries. Thomas Jefferson bought many books from them. Yet Shakespeare and Company was one of the first places people could come, sit, browse, read, and dream for hours that rolled into days. Hemingway loved it. Others, then and now, have loved it. And I am one of them.
What makes it special? First, it is an independent bookstore – an important distinction worthy of praise. The setting across from Notre Dame has no equal. Yet its history drew me in. Here is a shop that catered to the Lost Generation. This is famously stated by Gertrude Stein in A Moveable Feast: “That is what you are…all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.” While my view of the lost generation and their works has changed, I consider them inspiring and revealing of the human heart. Reading The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway changed my life, as did Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. These works were not written at Shakespeare and Co, but their authors frequented the bookstore, bought from it when they could (the prices have gone up!), and were shaped by it.
Past such literary giants, I imagine other aspiring artists who’ve taken solace and inspiration from the collection of books, the bookstore’s allure, charm, and language. For those who love books, the place speaks to you. It is a fabled arena for the written word, promoting and glorifying it. It’s not for everyone. But for those who love language in all forms, it brings comfort and excitement.
I close with some words from the wall of the bookstore’s entrance, still there. It says it all better than I have above.
Paris Wall Newspaper, January 1st, 2004.
“Some people call me the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter because my head is so far up in the clouds that I can imagine all of us are angels in paradise, and instead of being a bonafide bookseller, I am more like a frustrated novelist. This store has rooms like chapters in a novel and the fact is Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are more real to me than my next door neighbors and even stranger to me is the fact that even before I was born Dostoyevsky wrote the story of my life in a book called ‘The Idiot’ and ever since reading it I have been searching for the heroine a girl Nastasya Philippovna. One hundred years ago my bookstore was a wine shop hidden from the Seine by an annex of the Hotel Dieu hospital which has since been demolished and replaced by a garden. Further back in the year 1600 our whole building was a monastery called ‘La Maison du Mustier.” In medieval times each monastery had ‘frere Lampier’ whose duty was to light the walls at nightfall. I have been doing this for fifty years. Now it is my daughter’s turn.”
I relate to this. This is a place where many find angels in paradise as they realize they are frustrated novelists. The rooms of the bookstore are like chapters within a novel. The characters in books are more real than neighbors. Some of us meet the characters there & see our lives written hundreds of years before in literary classics. Some still search for that heroine of a novel we read. If you come to visit Paris, you may likely run into me here.
It is only a bookstore, and it doesn’t possess the reality of dialogue with a friend or new acquaintance. But it can bring that reality about. Even more, for readers of great works, from Shakespeare to Sartre, you realize these authors are having a conversation with one another. You are drawn into that conversation and can contribute to it, whether you write, publish, or not. You learn about the needs of the human heart, for yourself and others. This grows insight and wisdom. Places like Shakespeare & Company invite me into this conversation, helping me find my own voice and use it more effectively.
ARE YOU STILL MOVING TO PARIS? YES…
Yes, we hope to move this summer 2020. We are committed to this mission, regardless of a pandemic or other deterrents. If you are interested in partnering, please join us in our journey today.
THANKS FOR READING!
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