Today is World Book Day, the day of celebrating of books and joys of reading. My legendary bookstore experience was in Shakespeare & Company in Paris. Located on the bank of the Seine opposite Notre-Dame, it is the one of the most famous booksellers in the world.
Sylvia Beach, an American expat established Shakespeare and Company in 1919. In his book “A moveable feast”, Ernest Hemingway described his friendship with Sylvia Beach. When he was too poor to afford the subscription, Beach let him borrow books for free. “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me,” he wrote in the book. The bookstore closed in 1941 when the German occupied France. Beach then was arrested and imprisoned for several months by Nazi authorities. In 1944 when the war ended, Hemingway drove his jeep and “personally librated” the store, but it never reopened.
In 1951, a new English-language bookstore was opened by George Whitman under the name of “Le Mistral.” In 1964 Whitman renamed the shop as Shakespeare and Company to mark William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday and to honor Sylvia Beach, who passed away in 1962.
Shakespeares bookstore in Paris is not a modern luxury bookstore, but it has been home to many writers and artists over the years. George Whitman has aspired writers by providing temporary residence in the bookstore, letting them sleep among the bookshelves in exchange for helping out in the store. More than 30,000 people have stayed at Shakespeare and Company, fulfilling Whitman’s vision of a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.” George Whitman was awarded the Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2006, one of France’s highest cultural honor. Whitman’s only child, Sylvia Whitman, named after Sylvia Beach, now is running the store, after George Whitman died at the age 98 in 2011.
We visited Shakespeare bookstore in Paris in 2018. Stayed in an Airbnb only about 5-10 minutes walking distance from the bookstore, we went there more than once. The store was full, because there’s something for everyone here. I took pictures of outside bookstore, but no photo was allowed inside of the bookstore. People should spend time to enjoy the books instead of the camera there.
My daughter has always wanted to buy one or two books as a memory gift when she went to overseas. She bought two books at Shakespeare bookstore. The bookstore gave souvenir stamps on her new purchased books.
It is true that bookstore sales have declined and bookstore is struggling due to all the advances in digital technology . I am a Kindle user myself, but the bookstore will always remain in our hearts. There is nothing like the smell of a book, and there is nothing better than getting lost in a bookstore!