Personal Stories from Shakespeare and Company, Paris’s Beloved English-Language Bookstore

Sylvia Whitman, who now runs the shop, and Krista Halverson, who edited the book, discuss a new publication that tells an in-depth history of Shakespeare and Company.

Shakespeare and Company exterior (1984) with Geroge and Sylvia Whitman (photo by Deborah Hayden)

I first visited Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 2010. I was studying abroad in Norwich, UK at the time and Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in Iceland, erupted over my spring break. It left a cloud of ash hovering over much of mainland Europe and the UK, stranding tourists and travelers. My passage back to England involved an overnight bus from Paris, which gave me enough time to stop by the famed bookshop. The writer’s nook upstairs was covered in notes, many of which described the magical happenstance of finding the shop during such an otherwise frustrating time. I agreed, there was no better way to encounter it than as a displaced traveler. The first incarnation of the shop, by American Sylvia Beach in 1919, welcomed expats as well as banned literature on rue de l’Odéon. In the spirit of this shop, George Whitman, another American, opened his version of the shop across from Notre Dame Cathedral in 1951, long after hers had closed.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, published by the newly established Shakespeare and Company publishing house, recounts this history and the shop’s spirit of housing wandering travelers known informally as the Tumbleweeds. With a wealth of archival documents and photographs from Whitman’s collection, and first-hand accounts of encounters and stays at the shop by visitors and residents specifically collected for this publication, the book is a memoir of a place with a magical and warm personality all its own.

I spoke with Sylvia Whitman, George Whitman’s daughter who now runs the shop, and Krista Halverson, who edited the book and is now the director of the publishing house, to discuss this new publication, which is the first to tell an in-depth history of the store.

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Cover of ‘Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Megan Liberty: Why did you decide to put together this book now? In other words, why was this a good time to share the history and the story of Shakespeare and Company?

Sylvia Whitman: The idea came after George died, in 2011. But even before his death, he had always wanted to write the story about the bookshop. He came up with the title, “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.” He had such a huge archive. I knew it was vast, but I didn’t actually ever get the chance to really go through everything. After he died, we realized we really should go through it because what we were finding was so amazing. Then I met Krista, almost around the same time.

Krista Halverson: Once we knew we wanted to do a book, then it was thinking about what shape the book would take.

SW: I think we were a bit worried it would be boring, telling it chronologically.

George Whitman at Shakespeare and Company in the early 1950s (photo credit unknown, courtesy Shakespeare and Company)

KH: We had a real talk about doing it in a chronology. But then realized quite quickly we wanted to present people’s stories about the shop in their own words and not couched within the words of the body copy. We really wanted them to stand alone.

ML: I love the design, with the testimonials woven into the middle of the narrative and photographs and archival documents spread throughout.

KH: It really was meant to be just like being at the shop. All the things are coming at you at once, just like if you were actually here. It is for the reader, like it is for the visitor, to pick up the pieces that interest her and to let her make her own impression, so she can make up her own mind about the shop and have her own feelings about the shop. It’s meant to be impressionistic more than telling someone what to think and feel. Although the facts are here, we didn’t want that to be the emphasis of the book.

ML: Did you solicit the stories and testimonials or were those documents you found in George’s archive?

KH: All the Tumbleweed [the visiting travelers’] biographies were in the archive. Some came from letters to George that were in the archive and I would edit them into stand-alone stories. The one from Ken Tindall, he wrote in 1985 and he was remembering his first great love affair affair he had in 1958 in the bookshop. Some came from videos; Allen Ginsberg’s came from a documentary. Some came from audio cassettes. The one from Helen Martin, who was one of the first Tumbleweeds who came to the shop, that was adapted from an interview that George himself gave when he visited her in Australia. She and her husband are the couple whom Sylvia makes mention of in her epilogue, whose home George just showed up to 35 years after they had stayed at the shop.

Then we did an open call for submissions on social media. Lynn Haney Trowbridge’s story in the 1960s about working at Christian Dior while she lived in the bookstore, she sent that in to us. Particularly those that come after the ‘90s with younger people who are more into social media, came in as submissions. We got at least over 1,000 that came in over social media.

‘Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

ML: You still do the Tumbleweed program now?

SW: Yes. The Tumbleweed thing is something that when I first came back [from boarding school], I kind of took it for granted. I actually found it a bit difficult. The Tumbleweeds were usually around the same age as me, and my dad would invite up to 18 people to sleep in the shop at a time. So it was kind of chaotic. But now I’ve come round to it, having met so many really wonderful people through that program — that makes it sound official, it’s not at all official — and heard so many amazing stories from people who had the experience years ago. I actually feel like it’s one of the most important parts of the bookshop now. Particularly, I really think it’s such an unusual thing to have in the city, in a business. It’s something that I find very exciting to continue.

ML: You mentioned how you felt like living with the Tumbleweeds when you returned from school. What was your childhood like there? I know you lived there until you were 10 years old or so. What was it like growing up in that environment?

SW: That was actually quite a difficult chapter for us to deal with in the book, because my childhood memories are not very explicit or very clear. Being one of the publishers, I didn’t want to have a chapter about me. So I really liked the way we dealt with it, which was Krista’s idea: the five pages of Alice in Wonderland-themed illustrations. It gave the atmosphere that is very strong in my memory. There is something very Alice in Wonderland-y about growing up around these towers of books with really eccentric characters coming in and out. The colors, the tea parties … But it was also very nice to skip over and be vague to let other people have their impressions from the illustrations.

I guess my main memory is growing up with the Tumbleweeds and having all these travelers from around the world, speaking different languages, and telling stories. They were here for the stories and they turned out to be really great storytellers. That’s my strongest memory. The constant in and out of all these travelers.

ML: Were there any specific people, any specific Tumbleweeds that really left an impression on you or that you felt especially close to?

SW: I think probably the person I remember the most is a beat poet, not very well known as a beat poet, called Ted Jones. He would be at the bookshop at noon every day, sitting outside the bookshop reading the International Herald Tribune. He was just a fixture. He was an amazing performance poet. He would come about with poetry at all times. He was utterly inspiring. He was probably the most striking character from that period.

George Whitman and guests, at Shakespeare and Comapny, in the 1970s (photo by Robert Jeantet)

ML: It was an extremely unique environment to grow up in. When did you become aware that this was very unlike other lifestyles?

SW: Much later, when I was in my twenties! I was totally oblivious to that. It was the only thing knew. Then I went to boarding school [in the UK] and that was when I wasn’t really in contact with my father. None of my friends had any idea of the space and hadn’t really heard of it. It became this kind of unreal thing in another country at that point. It was only really when I came back in my twenties and met the other Tumbleweeds who were my age and saw their reactions to the space that I became aware.

ML: The book also describes the tragic scene of the fire in 1990 that destroyed almost everything. Were you still living there at the time?

SW: Thank god I was not there. Most of what I know about the fire is what Krista found in the archive and put in the book. I find it difficult to think about that moment. George must have been so depressed. It’s any bookseller’s worst nightmare.

KH: There is the young woman, Line Hoeck, who tells the story about being a Tumbleweed during the fire. Her story came in the open call for submissions. We had a couple of people who wrote in about the fire. For her, she still says it’s one of the strongest memories of her life. She was 17 years old and traveling with her friend.

ML: I really enjoyed that chapter, especially with the eye-witness Tumbleweed accounts, and the story of the potentially missing boy, who was eventually found.

KH: It was funny because one of the stories we got in the open call for submissions was from the father of that young boy [which we didn’t include]. Then, two weeks later, I got Line’s story [which is included in the book]. Her account is really wonderful because you get her account of the fire, but you also get the tenure of the place and the color because she says, that night we stayed at Lee the Juggler’s, because that is the Tumbleweed experience — that there is just someone in your life whose name is Lee the Juggler and he lends you clothes to wear. And then you wander back to the help, fix this now burnt-down bookshop by putting wet books in the sun and hoping that they dry. That’s all you can do. But I am sure they did it with quite a bit of hopefulness.

I think that’s what’s really touching about the young people, always no matter what the decade, who come through the shop, that there is often a hopefulness and curiosity about how they can be engaged with the world and with other people. You really see, when you read all the Tumbleweed biographies together, as we did — we read all 10,000 that remain in the archive — that really comes through. That really special perspective that people in their early twenties have about the world and its possibilities.

‘Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

ML: That magical stumbling upon the shop and all the possibilities really comes across in the book.

KH: For a lot of people it ends up being true. With all the Tumbleweeds whose biographies appear in the book, we had to get permission from them to publish them. But then we also asked for an update on what they are doing with their lives. So many of them are in books or writing, or are helping or working with people. James Richard Crotteau, who has the second biography in the book, he said that being in the bookshop and meeting George totally changed his life and his perspective on it. He has gone on to spend his whole life as a lawyer working with disadvantaged kids, mostly kids in the foster system, and pro-bono. And that’s what he’s dedicated his life to. He said that was the result of coming through the bookshop and being given shelter when he was evading the draft.

SW: That is definitely an example of why we felt that [the Tumbleweed program] is actually such an important part of the bookshop that we have to continue.

ML: As you said, you were away from the bookshop for most of your teenage years. The book follows George’s struggle and worries over who would take over the shop. Were you aware of this? Did you feel pressured to take it over?

SW: I knew that for him it was obvious I would take it over. Like any family business, there is pressure to feel like you can continue it. It worked out quite well because I did have that time away. That’s, for me, the most moving part in the book, the stuff that Krista found in the archive that showed his sadness and real stress about aging and about the shop. I found that quite painful to realize. But I was so young then, so I just didn’t know what the situation was.

But then coming back to the bookshop, it was a real love affair that started between me and George, and the bookshop, and the city of Paris. Once I came back it happened all very quickly, and it felt totally natural. Now I feel exactly like he did! Obviously I was going to take over the shop! Why would anyone want to do anything else?! I guess I’ve been brainwashed.

‘Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

ML: The book makes it seem that way, as though all of a sudden you were in charge. It wasn’t as though you ever had a conversation about taking over the shop.

SW: George was a total anarchist in a way. You never thought about him owning it. If you ever asked him what it felt like to own the bookshop he’d say the bookshop owned him. He was so much about sharing the space with everyone and never having a closed door that it never really felt like this kind of business that was owned by him that was now transferred to me. It felt much more like there was a spirit that he had created here that I wanted to be part of.

I feel that actually now we are quite close to how it was run in the ‘70s, in the sense that George seemed really organized then and really energetic and he was doing so much. There were a lot of interesting people and a lot of interesting events happening at the bookshop. I feel he was very close to how he wanted to be running it. When I came in the early 2000s, and I know it was the same in the late ‘90s, it was much more chaotic and messy, but that was because George was 88 and he was tired. I love the chapter on the ‘70s; I feel like it’s like what’s happening now.

ML: Going off that idea of keeping the spirit alive, one of the early legacies of Shakespeare and Company is publishing banned books — James Joyce, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg. Now that books are not banned the same way, I wonder if there is any way that you try to keep that legacy and spirit alive.

SW: The first thing that comes to mind, is that we could be quite a souvenir style bookshop and prioritize mass-market selling books at a huge discount and sell keychain and postcards or whatever. But we made a quite concerted decision not to do that.

KH: It’s a much more literary selection of books, very international. The booksellers who work in the shop are so smart and so well read that when I watch them interact with customers they’re often leading them to interesting books and new voices.

SW: Yes, which I think is very representative of the whole indie bookselling. It’s all about that, making sure you are loyal to the smaller publishers and that the booksellers are passionate about what they do and are interested in the smaller, lesser-known authors as well as the big ones. I love that position of being a bridge, as an anglicized bookshop in Paris.

ML: Do you have a lot of local people coming in or mostly tourists?

SW: It’s a real mix and depends on the time of year. What I have found really interesting is that since opening the café a year ago, we’ve had a huge surge in French customers, which has been really great. Tourism is a little lower than it was last year, and it’s something that is really important to us, not to be a little Anglicized bubble in Paris and to have that exchange. That’s why we decided to expand the children’s section and create a new section of suggested first books in English. So we’ve definitely got more locals since then.

Otherwise, we’re open until 11 at night so you really get a lot of French customers and locals in the evening and tourists in the afternoon.

Shakespeare and Company exterior, early 2000s (photo by Gillian Garnica)

ML: Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company also has a history as a publisher, publishing a small number of books often funded out of her own pocket, which were considered controversial or banned literature. Later, George attempted to revive this history, publishing a few issues of a serial literary magazine and a collection of Tumbleweed biographies. This book is one of the first projects in the renewed publishing efforts of Shakespeare and Company under your ownership. Why did you revive it, what types of projects do you have coming up?

SW: Well, the idea came from Lawrence Ferlinghetti from City Lights who was always very adamant that if you have a bookshop you may as well start publishing. Obviously there is the history of Shakespeare and Company with Sylvia Beach publishing James Joyce in 1922.

KH: It’s important for us, and in the spirit of the shop, to take submissions. But with a small staff we have to figure out how to do that so everything can be read and replied to in a timely way and a respectful way and find things that are good matches for us. I think we are looking for new writing, fiction and poetry, and also illustrated books. I have in mind a children’s book already that I want to do and some beautiful editions of classic works and some works in translation. I am hoping we’ll find ourselves in a really good position to present French works that haven’t been translated yet, but also works in other languages.

I also really want to take advantage of the Tumbleweeds and the staff and a lot of the talent that comes through the shop and do some smaller chapbook style books that we would make here and hopefully sell for under 10 euro, something quite beautiful and handmade that really reflects that side of the bookshop. I think there is the more sophisticated, more intellectual side of the shop and then there is the great human touch spirit that one feels when they are here. I’d also like us to make something that customers can take with them that shares, that spirit that’s not expensive and gives a voice and audience to emerging writers. It’s a matter of making that connection between the writers and the readers in a really especially beautiful way.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart is out from Shakespeare and Company

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