Salon on the Seine: A profile of the iconic bookshop Shakespeare and Company

Shakespeare and Company

Shakespeare and Company

Located in the heart of Paris, Shakespeare and Company is probably the most famous English-language bookshop in France. Known for its open library, extensive collection of books and vibrant programme of author events (including previous visits from Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller and William Burroughs) Shakespeare and Company is a true literary salon. Today we take a look at this pillar of the Parisian English-language literary scene, and its founder George Whitman, who died on Wednesday.

“Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise.” – This quote from Yeates is written on the walls of Shakespeare and Company’s much-visited library.

The sad news of George Whitman’s death on Wednesday will be felt deeply across the publishing community. Over the years Yale reps have enjoyed visiting Whitman’s iconic bookshop Shakespeare and Company, and our authors have jumped at the chance to give book readings there (recent visitors include Marilynne Robinson, Roy Howat, Alberto Manguel and David Waller). For over 60 years, customers, authors and members of the literary establishment have visited Whitman’s bookshop to buy books, visit its library or even stay over (Whitman claimed as many as 40,000 people have slept in the shop over the years).

Whitman opened the bookshop in 1951 after a few years of operating a makeshift lending library out of a cheap hotel on Boulevard St Michel. Le Mistral, as it was first called, quickly became an essential meeting place for authors, influential literary figures and bookish travellers, with a tearoom hosting soirees and poetry readings, and a lending library catering for those who could not afford to buy books outright. Whitman himself described the shop as ”a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”.

Poets Corner, Shakespeare and Company

Poets Corner, Shakespeare and Company

Le Mistral became a focal point for literary culture in bohemian Paris, and was frequented by many Beat Generation writers, such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. It was probably at Le Mistral that Burroughs first gave readings of Naked Lunch to the public. “No one was sure whether to laugh or to be sick,” Whitman said later about the orgiastic, drug-fuelled novel, which in 1958 could not be published in Britain or America.

In 1964, after 13 years in business, Whitman renamed his shop Shakespeare and Company, after another influential establishment which had closed during the Second World War.  He renamed his shop shortly after the death of the original Shakespeare and Company’s owner Sylvia Beach, who was also the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses. When Whitman’s daughter was born in 1981, he named her Sylvia Beach Whitman after his influential predecessor.

Sylvia continues to run the shop, which is as influential and integral to the Paris literary scene now as it was back in the 50s and 60s. It remains in its original location in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, on the Left Bank opposite Notre Dame cathedral. It has spawned many imitations, with its free open atmosphere, but it remains unique, a must-see for visitors to Paris.

How to find Shakespeare and Company

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