Turning the page at Shakespeare and Company
English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company is the most famous bookshop in Paris, and maybe the entire world – but it's going through some changes. Telegraph Expat meets owner Sylvia Beach Whitman.
Paris is a city filled with spectacular sights. But tucked away on the Left Bank, in the shadow of Notre Dame, there sits a ramshackle English-language bookshop which any literature-loving tourist will be almost certain to make a beeline for.
Founded by American expatriate Geoge Whitman in the 1950s, Shakespeare and Company is the kind of quirky independent bookshop you'd be forgiven for thinking had long ago disappeared. Crowded, crooked bookshelves fill the maze of tiny rooms that once formed part of a monastery, jostling for space with fraying chairs, old mirrors and – in one one room – even a wishing well.
Perhaps more unusual, however, are the makeshift beds tucked between some of the shelves. For Whitman, an eccentric ex-serviceman who travelled around the world before deciding to settle in Paris, didn’t simply own a bookstore. What he created was, in own words, a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop”: a bohemian refuge where down and out, mostly expatriate writers could mingle, write, and even bed down for the night – all in exchange for a few hours' work in the shop, and on the strict understanding that they read a book every single day.
Over the years, famous figures from William Burroughs to Lawrence Durrell and Samuel Beckett walked through the shop's tatty doors. Burroughs used its medical textbooks to research The Naked Lunch, while Anaïs Nin left her will there. Rather less illustrious writers abused Whitman's legendary hospitality: the story goes that one English poet famously lived there for seven years.
Whitman passed away last year, just days after his 98th birthday, and the store is now in the hands of Sylvia, his only child. Born in Paris to Whitman’s English wife, Sylvia says she spent her early childhood "in a kind of fairytale, running barefoot around a shop where people slept”. But aged just seven, her parents divorced, and Sylvia spent more than a decade living with her mother in Britain. She had little contact with her father, and never expected to return to Paris, let alone work in the shop.