What It's Like to Live Inside the Legendary Paris Bookstore Shakespeare & Co.
I found a momentary home among the "Tumbleweeds" in the store that's given shelter to authors since the days of Joyce.
George Whitman opened the legendary bookshop now known as Shakespeare and Company in the shadow of Notre Dame in Paris in 1951, and having spent all his money on the shop he slept on a pullout couch among the books. He insisted on giving it up, though, if a writer came by and needed a place to stay. (He often asked writers to sleep there even if they didn't need a place to stay.) Soon, he started housing several writers at a time, either published or aspiring, and these literary vagabonds came to be known as the Tumbleweeds.
"Several million persons have walked in our door like tumbleweeds drifting in the wind," George wrote in his letter from the editor in the second edition of The Paris Magazine, published by the bookshop in 1984, "and then walked out, their innocence lost, as free citizens of the cosmos." He believed "we're all homeless wanderers in a way," and over the years, Shakespeare & Co. has welcomed wandering writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin, Julio Cortázar, Darren Aronofsky, and Dave Eggers.
This past month I've been living as a writer-in-residence above Shakespeare & Company bookshop and I've been thinking about tumbleweeds—both kinds—more than ever. I'm not from America and I've never seen a western, so I'm missing the necessary cultural framework to understand what a tumbleweed is, and when I first heard the term I thought of dust bunnies, small clumps of fluff that mysteriously gather under furniture and in forgotten corners of a room.
In botanical terms, tumbleweeds are not dead, exactly, nor are they useless detritus: A tumbleweed is a plant's way of propagating, a satellite full of seeds that pops off from the root and tumbles on to a bright future (think of blowing wishes on a white-headed dandelion, the seeds parachuting in the wind). When I first learned this, I was disappointed in the metaphorical significance of tumbleweeds not having any roots. I wanted them to have portable roots, and be able to plant themselves anywhere, because I wanted the be reassured I could take root wherever I end up.
But what has more power: roots, or seeds?
The shop estimates that somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people have slept here. The Tumbleweeds sleep in beds that have been placed throughout the bookshop—next to the piano, above the Mirror of Love—and there are generally around four people living in the bookstore at a time. One of George's rules that still remains is that all Tumbles must read a book a day. (They also help open and close the shop, work for two hours a day, and help out with the weekly readings.) I've never been a Tumbleweed myself, but some of the "Tumbles" I've met over the years remain my best friends today. There's Alice, the drummer in a "sassy queer anti-colonial feminist punk-band" from London; and Hanna, a gentle yet mischievous Swede who studies Russian and bakes lavender cake; and Daniel, a Californian who taught me about Joni Mitchell and whose life seems to have the pulse and buzz of a Beat poem. By now they've all returned to their home countries, and new people have replaced them. The whole world comes here, it seems, and then the whole world leaves.
I first came to Shakespeare & Company as an exchange student in the fall of 2007 and started working here part-time shortly after that. George was 93 when I met him. He wore pajamas and a paisley jacket almost exclusively. I was working at the shop one Saturday morning and Sylvia, George's daughter who now runs the store, asked me to help her dad prepare for his weekly pancake party. I went up to his apartment for the first time and found him in his corridor of a kitchen, making lemonade. "The secret to the best lemonade you'll ever have," he told me conspiratorially, without offering or expecting an introduction, "is using fresh lime blossoms."
"Fresh lime blossoms?" I'd never heard of such a thing. "Where do you find those in Paris?"
He paused, sugar in one hand and wooden spoon in another. Nearly a minute passed as he continued to stir the lemonade. "I'm lying," he said, finally. "You don't actually use lime blossoms. It just sounds more poetic that way."
George died in 2011 at the age of 98, by which point he had upgraded from a bed in the shop to a flat on the third floor in the same building. I'm living here now, in his former apartment, ostensibly to finish my second novel. But more practically and pressingly, I'm a "homeless wanderer." People have been asking me how I got this position, whether it was hard to obtain. The short answer is no, and the long answer is yes: I parted ways with a partner I loved, leaving the home where we'd lived together, and lost a contract I was relying on, so I asked Sylvia if I could stay for a while. She said, without question or hesitation, that I could stay for as long as I needed. George called Shakespeare & Company a "socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore," and I feel infinitely grateful to George and Sylvia for creating and maintaining a space that prioritizes community.
As I write this, black dog called Colette is sitting at my feet and a walleyed tabby with a broken tail is sitting on my lap. The cat is a stray the staff found contentedly curled up in the crime section one morning last winter; she was accordingly named Agatha Christie, but all animals who live at the bookshop, even the dog, wind up getting called Kitty. George said it was more convenient this way, as he only had to call one name and they'd all come to him at the same time.
Rather than alphabetizing books, George preferred to shelve them to make "interesting marriages." Sylvia eventually managed to convince him to systematize the books in the shop, but his personal collection is still arranged according to his personal preference. Sitting in this book-lined bedroom, I see The Gates of Africa beside In America and The Romance of American Communism, and then An Outline of Psychoanalysis beside Sexual Self-Stimulation.
The whole world comes here, it seems, and then the whole world leaves.
I take tea breaks in the front room, shared by staff and Tumbleweeds, and if I feel like talking, there's an endless supply of interesting people to talk to. If I don't, though, then I sit at the table with a book and read alongside whoever's there. There's the girl who uses her iPhone as a paperweight to hold down the thinner side of Infinite Jest; the tall Scot who eats cheese that's as orange as his classic Penguin paperback; the Buddhist who looks like Jesus and tells me about the Zen book that changed his life; the bespectacled antiquarian bookseller whom I first met through the cat-flap in my bedroom door when he came to feed Agatha.
One evening last week, some Tumbleweeds and I were reading through the archive of autobiographies—it was another of George's mandates that everyone who sleeps here write a one-page life story. Almost all of the attempts acknowledge the limitations of such an endeavor: How do you set about writing your life story when you're 19 years old and drunk on Paris? How can you contribute to a living archive? Around half of them try to start from the beginning (birthplace, earliest memories); the other half just dive right in, knowing they'll never be able to capture the whole mess of past and future. My favorites are these bold prose poems of the present.
I talked to Krista Halverson, director of Shakespeare & Company's new publishing arm, about her experience going through the shop's archives to put together the forthcoming book to be called, aptly, Shakespeare & Company, Paris: The Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart.
"I had no idea the extent of the archives before I started the job," Krista tells me. "It took years to go through." The archives include the one-page autobiographies, George's personal letters and journals, rare and surprising pieces of literary history, but also "receipts, resumes, and movie showings at cinemas from 1997." George kept most of his papers in his bedroom, but they mushroomed across the whole apartment: One unpublished manuscript by a Beat poet was recently found wedged above the shower between some pipes.
Krista's intention behind The Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, which will be published before this Christmas, was "to recreate for the reader [her] experience of sitting in George's bedroom and going through all these incredible papers." Krista came across notes from James Baldwin, rare artifacts of James Joyce's work, and letters from other literary giants. "You're getting the archive's greatest hits in the book," Krista told me, "but you'll still feel that sense of discovery."
Sylvia had recruited a few Tumbleweeds to help with the archival process before George died, but at that point, it wasn't an easy task. "It was partly just because he was such an old man," Sylvia says, "and partly because he was a bit cantankerous, but in order to do the job properly, it had to be done in secret." If George came across someone going through his papers, he would stop them and tell them a long story about a particular Tumbleweed, or tell them they were doing the job all wrong and had to start over.
Here, foreground blends with background into a head-in-the-sand sort of carpe diem: You know people will leave, but that doesn't stop you from enjoying them while they're here.
For someone who was so careful to keep everything, and whose life's philosophy was so intertwined with words and physical documents, I find it strange that George would have made it so difficult for people to archive his papers. Didn't he realize their value in simply having kept them?
Krista believes that George did understand the value of his documents, as well as the legacy they'd leave behind, but that he was more concerned with living in the present and moving forward with his life's work. "He was too busy to look to the past. It's probably why he lived such a long life."
I wanted to write an essay about living in a legendary Parisian bookshop that also talked about losing myself, finding myself, and then letting it all go again. I wanted to try to show you how home is something that doesn't have to be permanent—how maybe it never can be.
It is at Shakespeare & Co, with the constant turnover of tourists and Tumbleweeds, that I've learned to embrace the present even when I know it won't last. Here, foreground blends with background into a head-in-the-sand sort of carpe diem: You know people will leave, but that doesn't stop you from enjoying them while they're here. In other cities where I've lived, and even among less transient circles in Paris, I find people are less willing to open up their lives to the random scatterings of chance. Maybe they're focusing more on roots than on seeds.
It's hard, often impossible, to deal with departures and endings, whether you're the one who leaves or the one who stays. But for now, I'm grateful to have the dog at my feet, the cat on my lap, and to be surrounded by people for whom forever is just right now.
Follow Harriet on Twitter.