Talking about the history of Shakespeare and Company on a stroll through Paris.
From left to right: Sylvia Whitman, Lauren Elkin, and Krista Halverson. Photo: Mathew McWilliams
It was the first of the really cold days when I went for a walk around the Left Bank with Sylvia Whitman, the owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company, and Krista Halverson, the editor of a new book on its history, Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Published last November on the shop’s sixty-fifth anniversary, the book is full of stories and documents from interviews, letters, diaries, news articles. It reproduces autobiographies from generations of Tumbleweeds, as the staff calls the young people who live there in exchange for helping out around the shop and the promise to read a book a day. There are amazing photographs (including one of an ill-fated combustible wishing well), and handwritten notes posted on the community bulletin board in the 1950s: EXECUTIVE TYPE WISHES TO LEARN INFORMALITY AND RELAXATION FROM BOHEMIAN FRIENDS; FOR THE LADY IN THE BOIS DE BOLOGNA WHO LOST HER SMILE FROM THE GENTLEMAN WHO FOUND IT.
I’d recently published a quasi-memoir of my own, Flâneuse, about my love of walking in cities, and Paris specifically, and the many women who’ve lived and walked in those cities before me. The chapter on Jean Rhys begins in Shakespeare and Company, where I first discovered her novels as a student in 1999. Excited about the overlaps in our books, Sylvia and Krista invited me on a walk to dish about the shop and all the literary women who’ve been associated with it, making their names in the shadows of more famous men.
We walked from the Jardin du Luxembourg to the Place Saint-Sulpice and then back to the shop across the river from Notre Dame, talking of Sylvia Beach, who founded the original Shakespeare and Company on the nearby rue de l’Odéon, in 1919; her partner, Adrienne Monnier, who ran her own French-language bookshop across the street from Sylvia’s; and Sylvia Whitman’s dad, George, who is said to have received Sylvia Beach’s blessing to carry on the Shakespeare and Company name after the war. (He named his daughter after her, too.) We began in the Café de Tournon near the Jardin de Luxembourg, where some of the friends of the shop used to gather and drink, including a group of young bohemians who founded the avant-garde literary journal Merlin out of the shop in 1952. Read More