There are places that live in our subconscious long before we actually visit them on planet Earth. Places so particular, so captivating, so inexplicably quaint that it seems they really belong only in our minds. Shakespeare and Company, the eccentric Parisian bookstore across the Seine from Notre Dame is just that kind of place.
The fact that the books cost slightly more is abundantly made up for by the fact that you are getting them here. Just the way in New York you buy jewellry at Tiffany’s, in Paris you buy English language books at Shakespeare’s.
First opened by the American expat Sylvia Beach in 1919, the store quickly became a literary hub with writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce as habitual frequenters. Closed in 1941 because of the German occupation (legend has it that Beach denied a German officer the last copy of Finnegan’s Wake), it wasn’t until 10 years later that the bookstore was reopened, but this time by George Whitman under the name Le Mistral.
When Sylvia Beach died in 1962, George changed the name back to Shakespeare and Company and it has remained so ever since. The philosophy of the bookstore, best summed up in George’s own words as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”, has not changed over the years. It has offered artists a place to meet and sleep for over 60 years (supposedly more than 40,000 people have rested their heads on Shakespeare’s pillows).
And a piano, too
From a previous visit, I knew they let artists sleep here in exchange for a couple of hours work shelving books. But I had somehow forgotten they also had a piano – an unassuming upright with a very out-of-tune ‘A’ half buried in books – which the patrons are encouraged to play whenever they are feeling musically inclined. This time I happened to be in Paris between tours in Asia and Italy, having opted to spend three weeks in the “City of Light” instead of braving the record heat wave pounding the New York metropolitan area. Definitely a good choice. But where was I to practice for my upcoming shows?
I decided to sit down at the somewhat dusty keyboard and have a go at it despite the semi-silent atmosphere enveloping the bookstore. What ensued was a perfect combination of playing, meeting and interacting with a host of random and interesting people. The results of this first evening were so auspicious I decided this was a perfect venue to keep my fingers happy while practicing my French and meeting new people. As a result of my Shakespeare evenings, I met people from Italy, Spain, Lithuania, England and Germany. New friends were made.
Quick fix with Chopin
I started bringing entire groups of people in for a quick fix of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. I was approached by a journalist from Chicago for a radio interview. But most importantly, I was ready for my next round of concerts.
I will most certainly be returning to Paris and to Shakespeare and Company. In an ever-changing world, this unassuming family-run bookstore located in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world is a happy constant. Definitely go have a look for yourself if you are ever in town. Thank you, Shakespeare.
Julian Gargiulo is a pianist and composer who divides his time between wishing sabre-toothed tigers weren’t extinct and making paper pirate hats out of his old bios. In between his involvement as fundraiser for and friend of www.diabetes.ky, he also finds time for touring with his new album mostlyjulian, working on his nonprofit 16000children.org, curating the Water Island Music Festival in the US Virgin Islands and Crossing Borders of Hunter College in NY, and endlessly walking the streets of New York in search of people to add as Facebook friends. You can contact him on [email protected]