Thursday 3 March 2016

A bookshop before sunset

Towards the end of last year I went to Paris. You know that because I've already told you about my reason for visiting: a bookshop. What I didn't tell you was that while I was there I also visited a bonus bookshop, the subject of this week's blog.

I didn't mention it before because they're two very different bookshops and I didn't want them to get mixed up. It felt right to leave some space between the two visits and write-ups so that each would be appreciated individually: one for being a small, local bookshop with a community feel, the other for its international fame and the romance that somehow comes with it.

Shakespeare and Company was opened by George Whitman in the 1950s, but as it's already a part of the literary tourist trail I see no need to give you a detailed history here. Instead I'll tell you about my first encounter with the bookshop, in the opening of one of my favourite films: Before Sunset.

A film is perhaps an odd first reference to a bookshop, but that brief glimpse inside is all I knew of Shakespeare and Company for many years. Next I read a book. Written by a former tumbleweed, it gave me a glimpse of life in the time of George and created the image of a magical world.

Finally, one bright autumn afternoon a friend and I left Notre Dame, crossed the Seine, wandered through a very small park and saw the sign of Shakespeare and Company peeking out.

The bookshop itself is as pictured in countless images all over the internet. The accompanying antiquarian bookshop* is also there. Finally – and actually the first thing spotted on the route I took – is the accompanying relatively new cafe and a welcome opportunity to grab a cold drink and recover from a busy day exploring.

Entering Shakespeare and Company is like walking into wonderland. A sign on the door asks visitors not to take photos and part of the bookshop's magic is definitely the journey of discovery as you explore the rabbit warren of rooms, meaning I'm reluctant to go into too much detail here but will say the nooks and crannies, writing cubby, random beds and countless other details are a joy to discover.

There were also people everywhere. In one room a girl typed away at a laptop, while in another two friends chatted on a bed, and everywhere browsers comfortably jostled for space. It's always a joy to see a busy bookshop and every sight and sound served as an additional reminder of the bookshop's motto: Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.

Its fame may mean Shakespeare and Company has transformed from the traditional community bookshop, but that in no way diminishes the achievement or experience. I happily browsed my way around the new books on the ground floor, enjoying booky conversations between fellow tourists and hoping the pleasure of this holiday visit will stay with them – and influence the locations of their bookshopping choices – when they return home. As for my shopping, my friend chose Paul Hansford's book about the Tour de France, while I picked up The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, and enjoyed claiming my stamp on the inside front page.

Books bought, it was time to return to the streets of Paris. As we walked away from the bookshop the gentle tunes of a pair of buskers gradually faded, easing us back into the bustle of the city. It may not quite have been a Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke moment, but that didn't matter: this bookshop has a romance all of its own.

Shakespeare & Company
37 rue de la Bûcherie
75005 Paris
Tel: 00 33 (0) 1 43 25 40 93

* The antiquarian bookshop was closed at the time of my visit, I consider this an excellent excuse to return (not that I needed one).

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