Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Friday, 20 August 2010

Shakespeare and Company in Paris

Just opposite the Notre Dame in Paris in the Latin Quarter lies a magnet for booklovers and the curious. For 37 rue de la Bucherie is where 96-year-old  American, George Whitman opened his now famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company in August 1951. Since then, over 50,000 people are thought to have slept there - yes, beds have always been provided for those without a place to lay their heads - and such luminaries as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Allen Ginsberg have stopped by for tea.

In the 60s and 70s when I lived and worked in Paris, Shakespeare's was one of my favourite haunts. Going in there was like entering one of Alice's adventures in Wonderland, dwarfed as I was by the masses of shelves and dusty old books tumbling in all directions. George was an interesting sort of character, with his pointy beard and quiet manner and he managed to convince us all that he was the illegitimate great-grandson of the poet, Walt Whitman. We were never sure whether to believe him or not but I liked to think it might be so. 'Would you like some peaches?' was usually his opening gambit. He would take a bowl of them out of a fridge that stood incongruously among the books and if you didn't like peaches, a glass of iced tea would do just as well. In those days, it was rumoured that the upper floor was full of mattresses for anyone who wanted to stay but I never ventured up there. A writer could pick up any amount of crazy conversations if they were short of dialogue and I remember well a young American wearing a huge backpack asking another similarly attired teenager, 'Are you heading for Katmandu?' The reply: 'Yeah, I'm heading for Katmandu.' It all seemed so cliched, until I actually found myself in Katmandu some years later, and understood what they were on about.

So who is George Whitman and where did Shakespeare and Company come from? The story goes that George was born in New Jersey but his parents moved to Salem, Massachusetts when he was a baby. His father, who was actually called Walter Whitman was indeed a writer but, as a physics professor, he wrote about science in the home and community, not poetry. After the Second World War, George studied French at the Sorbonne and acquired a collection of English books which he sold first in his hotel room and later from a barge. Eventually, he settled for the 17th century building that is now legendary, changing its name from Le Mistral to Shakespeare and Company in the 1960s after Sylvia Beach, the originator died. Sylvia Beach, an American living in Paris opened her English bookstore and library at 8 rue Dupuytren in 1919 and two years later moved it to the rue de l'Odeon where it attracted many famous writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, until France was occupied in 1941. Beach became famous for publishing Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 as it was banned in the UK and USA.

Nowadays, Shakespeare and Company is in the capable hands of George's 29-year-old daughter, Sylvia since George has retired and she has regenerated it by organising biennial festivals for writers. The fourth such event took place in June this year with 'Storytelling and Politics' and it drew hundreds of people to a white tent overlooking Notre Dame for three days to hear some notable literary speakers. Things are different now and I'm told the beds are interspersed among the bookshelves but they're still there, as is the library. Monday evening readings attract well-known authors and Sunday afternoons are for tea. Young volunteers, known as 'tumbleweeds' man the shop now, some criticised for their coolness to customers but for me, it was George Whitman who had the cachet and the graciousness that made Shakespeare and Company the legend that it became.
Shakespeare and Company is open every day from 10am until 11pm, except for Saturdays and Sundays when it opens at 11am. Metro: Cluny-La Sorbonne. (Tel: 00 33 (0) 1 43 25 40 93)


Gillian said...

I have just discovered your most wonderful blog, and feel a real kinship with you :-) Looking forward to reading old posts and many more to come!

Diane Paul said...

How lovely to hear from you Gillian and thank you so much for your kind comments. You are so lucky to be living in Paris. I will let you know when I come over next and we must meet.

Anonymous said...

Hello Diane,

I too wish to blog about George Whitman and Shakespeare&Co (I worked there in the spring of 1974), and I wondered if I could use your photograph.

Naturally I'd credit the photographer.

Thank you, Kim

Diane Paul said...

Please contact me by email for requests of this kind, leaving a name and email address that I can respond to.