Bookshop of the Heart

Michael Hayward

Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris regularly makes it onto lists like The World’s Coolest Bookstores and The 2 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World. Once, years ago, I lived above the shop for several weeks as a resident “tumbleweed,” sleeping on the floor in exchange for a couple of hours of chores a day. Chaos eddied into every corner of the shop: drawers crammed with sheaves of unsorted tumbleweed autobiographies (everyone who stayed was required to write a brief account of their life to date, and to read a book a day); sticky glasses left behind by George Whitman, the shop’s founder, who regularly offered homemade lemonade to passersby; once, while tidying behind a velvet-covered daybed, I found a flattened, desiccated mouse, enshrouded by dustballs. A new book tells the full story of this magical and amazing place. Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart (published by the shop) is a gorgeous thing, full of photographs that document the shop’s nearly seventy-year span (one photograph from 1984 shows George Whitman at age seventy, with his daughter Sylvia, then three years old, riding on his shoulders). One of the most interesting chapters in the book covers the years of transition, when George was (reluctantly) passing the baton to Sylvia: the old, anarchic world rubbing shoulders with the new (the shop’s first cash register appeared—over George’s vehement objections—in 22). At one point Sylvia recalls the winter of 2, when she first considered moving back to Paris from London: “I was nineteen, and my father was in his eighties. I wanted to get to know him, before I regretted it forever.” George Whitman passed away in December of 211 at the age of ninety-eight, leaving daughter Sylvia to preside over the bookstore, which now includes a sidewalk-level café from which customers can gaze across the Seine toward Notre-Dame.

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