Shakespeare & Company

By John Affleck

For Ernest Hemingway, the walk from his Latin Quarter flat to Gertrude Stein’s pavillon at 27, rue des Fleurs, would have been a pleasant one: down rue Moufftard until a left on rue Clovis took him past St. Etienne du Montno Notre Dame, but the sort of neighborhood church where you might stop and cross yourself if you were drunk and it was late and you were on your way home to your wife. Then he’d be in Place du Pantheon, “windswept” he calls it in A Moveable Feast, its cobblestoned emptiness funneling into Rue Soufflot, a wide, short street full of Sorbonne students mingling at sidewalk cafes. By now he could see the Luxembourg Gardens at the end of the street; he’d have to wait for traffic to clear around Place Edmond Rostand, but it was worth it to walk through the park, especially in the good summer weather when the young girls were out reading and the young schoolboys in shorts used sticks to direct their toy sailboats around the fountain. And if it were early enough, and he wasn’t too late or was coming unannounced, as Ms. Stein said he could, he might take a quick detour past the looming Luxembourg Palace, through the open gate and down to 12, rue de l’Odeon: Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop.

It was late 1921 when “Hemingway just walked in one day,” as Sylvia Beach recalls in her memoir, appropriately titled Shakespeare and Company. Sherwood Anderson had recommended the place, but Hemingway didn’t bother to show his letter of introduction; instead, in a deep voice he simply said, “I”m Ernest Hemingway.” It was still five years before the success of The Sun Also Rises would make him the mouthpiece of the Lost Generation, a time when Hemingway made ends meet as a sports correspondent for the Toronto Star, but Sylvia put business on hold to hear a shy young Hemingway sheepishly recount his war stories as an ambulance driver in Italy and, cajoled, remove his shoes and roll up his pants to display his battle scars.

He would declare himself her “best customer,” and quickly earned her friendship by actually buying books (few people had money for such things after the war), and being a meeting place for poor starving writers, who were hardly paying the bills. When asked for advice on what to read, Sylvia started him on Turgenev and D.H. Lawrence from her lending library. He returned her kindness by taking her to various sporting events to which he had free admission: horse races, a past-time by which Hemingway claims to have won enough to concentrate fully on his fiction, and boxing, accompanied by Hemingway”s studied commentary. The next year Bumby John Hadley Hemingway would become at one year-old a second-generation “best customer,” a faithful and well-behaved audience member when Papa would read his stories.

By all accounts, Sylvia’s bookshop was the best around. It had a loyal clientele, a good selection of the latest literary journals from both sides of the Atlantic, an eclectic if small English-language library, and a knowledgeable staff. The clientele, of course, would become the most celebrated gathering of artistes in history; on any given day a young Hemingway, having bade “good day” to a departing Scott Fitzgerald, might have browsed through the well-turned pages of the Transatlantic and stumbled upon the new installment of Ulysses, which Sylvia Beach would go on to publish in book form under the Shakespeare and Company imprint. Joyce himself first frequented the shop, then set up his shop there, using it as a library-cum-post office box-cum-study. Gertrude Stein complained that the library was devoid of “amusing books,” so Sylvia hunted around for copies of her work. Stein likely felt threatened by the upstart on rue O’deon; she prided herself as a sort of den-mother for the lost boys like Hemingway, and also for giving them their name, though according to Hemingway it originally came to her from a surly French mechanic: “vous etes tout un generation perdu.

After The Sun Also Rises changed literature forever, Hemingway found himself a citizen of the world, living at various times in Spain, Florida, Cuba, and finally Ketchum, Idaho. While his days in Paris faded into memory and finally were entombed in a memoir, he never forgot his favorite bookstore. When Sylvia refused to sell her last copy of Finnigan’s Wake to a high-ranking German officer, it was decreed that the store was to be closed and all the goods confiscated. Sylvia moved everything to the apartment and painted over the sign. Shakespeare and Company had disappeared, having been for twenty years the hub of the one of the greatest literary assemblages ever. It was Hemingway who, in 1944 at the front lines of the Allied forces, drove his jeep to 12, rue de l’Odeon and officially “liberated” Shakespeare and Company.

A new sort of expatriate came to Paris after the Second World War: the G.I. Bill allowed men like Lawrence Ferlinghetti to study at the Sorbonne; Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin found Parisians unphased by their color; James Jones simply never went home. The dollar was all-powerful, Americans were greeted in the street with kisses, and the cultural vacuum left by four years of Nazi occupation was irresistible. As James Salter, himself part of the second installment of the Lost Generation, wrote in A Sport and a Pastime, “the city is being replenished.” All it needed was a new Shakespeare and Company to make them a community.

In 1951, thirty years after Sylvia Beach opened Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman opened Le Mistral, an English language bookshop at 37, rue de la Boucherie, on the Left Bank just across the Seine from Notre Dame.  He”d bought the prime location with an inheritance and filled it with books he”d acquired with G.I. book vouchers he’d bummed from non-literary troops, amassing an enviable collection of first editions from Lost Generation writers. Like Sylvia, he used the second floor as a library and venue for literary gatherings, and it quickly filled with the new generation of ex-pat writers. A different group, to be sure; more fragmented, and more daring. When Ginsberg and the Beats arrived in Paris in the late 50s they read their latest works on the street outside the shop: Corso read his poems, Ginsberg read Howl, and, most shocking, Burroughs read from Naked Lunch. At the other extreme, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who would go on to open the sister City Lights bookshop in San Francisco, slaved away at his doctoral thesis on T.S. Eliot”s poetry, always finding refuge at 37, rue de la Boucherie.

Following Sylvia Beach’s death in 1962, George renamed his bookshop Shakespeare and Company in her honor, though almost certainly without her permission. And while there was no shortage of literary aspirants passing through, George still sought his Hemingway and Joyce. To help catch them, he started the “Tumbleweed Hotel”; he installed sleeping berths in the library where down-on-their-luck young writers might stay, provided they “read a book a day” and worked an hour around the shop. More established writers could stay upstairs in the Writer’s Room, boasting three walls packed with rare volumes and considerably more comfortable beds. George estimates 10,000 travelers have stayed for at least a night; each visitor must leave a short autobiography and a photo. Many of these photos adorn the walls of the Writer”s Room: Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, alongside classic shots of Hemingway and Joyce and a seemingly omnipresent Sylvia Beach.

Never married, in his sixties George fathered his only daughter, and proved that the shop’s new name was more than just a publicity stunt by naming the girl Sylvia Beach Whitman. Indeed, it is easy to assume, as many tourists do, that it is the same bookshop frequented by Hemingway and Joyce, and George does little to correct them. To the contrary, he foments the rumors that he is the illegitimate grandson of Walt Whitman. While his own legacy may remain very much in Sylvia’s shadow, George’s tenure as Paris” literary host is now in its fourth decade, having weathered the Beats, the 1968 student riots, the hippies, and numerous tax audits by the French authorities (George doesn’t accept credit cards; all purchases are cash only). And while he still searches for literary heirs, the ghosts of the fathers have found themselves very much at home at the new Shakespeare and Company. It remains, in the spirit of its predecessor, the best bookshop around.

John Affleck lived and worked as the official historian at George Whitman”s Shakespeare and Company in the summer of 1997.

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