Yesterday afternoon on my long walk, I heard on NPR that George Whitman had died at the age of 98. Whitman was the owner of Shakespeare and Company, the English language bookshop in Paris, and here’s a link to his obituary.
I never met George Whitman, but I love Shakespeare and Company. I wish I had some pictures to share, but it seems that the more special a place or an experience is, the less likely I am to have pictures.
I first walked into Shakespeare and Company on my first day in Paris this past September. I had just come from Notre Dame which was packed with tourists. Even though I was a tourist myself, I didn’t feel right there. I felt trapped in a huge dark cave with a thousand digital cameras flashing. I had to get away. I walked across the square and spotted Shakespeare and Co.
Ahah! I know this place! My bookish self exclaimed with glee.
Remember Jen, you’re on vacation, you’re not writing. My relax-god-damn-it self reminded me.
I walked inside and immediately felt good. It wasn’t just the English language titles or the young hip expat crowd. The place felt good.
I spotted the usual suspects of expat literature: Hemingway, Miller, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein. Then, I looked closer and found chap books, independent and self-published books, stories, essays, poetry. The new stuff sat next to the old stuff, and it all worked.
At the back of Shakespeare and Company on the right side is a narrow rickety staircase up to the second floor. This is where it gets good. On the second floor are some small reading rooms with shelves of books on the walls. My favorite room is at the front of the store with a window that looks out onto the square and Notre Dame.
I sat down in a big green chair and just chilled the heck out. A cool breeze and sunlight came in through the window.
Then, the writing faucet opened up. Damnit, I was gonna write whether I wanted to or not. I sat in the little room filled with books and put words on paper. Only a few tourists came in and took pictures.
Maybe I had achieved a full-on cliché, the American in Paris writing, but what-fuckin-ever. I was calm and relaxed.
I stayed in Paris four days---just enough time to get a taste for it and want to go back. During that time, I went back to Shakespeare and Company again and again and again. There was just something nice in the air there. I even sat in on an English language writing group and got to listen and talk words and ideas. Sure Shakespeare and Company is historical, but it is also a place in the present where one can feel a little more human. That’s a good thing.