I am writing this letter from the most famous bookshop in the world, and one which revels in the title—for Paris’ Shakespeare and Company must also be one of the most twee places on earth. In some ways it can’t help it. In others it pirouettes.
Shakespeare and Company is nestled a pace back from the guff of the main road at 37 rue de la Bûcherie on the left bank of the Seine, its front windows facing Notre Dame’s South side across the water. Next door is one of the oldest churches in Paris—the 13th century St.-Julien-le-Pauvre—which has in its little park the oldest tree in Paris, planted in 1601—around the same year the rickety building containing the bookshop was built. There is a Wallace Fountain outside.
But all that is incidental, and merely picturesque. To achieve ‘twee’ requires artificiality, which this place finds. Founded in 1951 by an American called George Whitman who would ‘cut’ his hair with a lit candle, it offers cultivated eccentricity—nostalgia, poetry, magic manufactured. Inside it is all corners that would give themselves airs and be addressed as nooks, though some might claim to be crannies; the staircase insists upon the moniker ‘rickety’, and on the first floor there is what can only be called a ‘cubby hole’.
A small postbox encourages you to insert a note (anonymous or onymous) to be slipped into the pages of a book ordered online from the S&C website: coincidence contrived. They have a typewriter: for the composition of similar letters of blessing and fancy to other pilgrims, tripping, one assumes, on light fantastic feet ensconced in Doc Martens. They have, of course, a board for messages, adverts, lonely hearts and Starving Poets of all kinds, and a Reading Room where very, very young men who shouldn’t be allowed to grow beards like that can talk about Marx to very, very young women who shouldn’t be allowed to grow beards at all. Next door is an out-of-tune piano, should you wish to disturb them.
Above the door to the Reading Room is the inscription, written there by Whitman, “BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE”; thus the culture he instantiated of the ‘Tumbleweed’. If you are an artsy character with enough tattoos and opinions on D H Lawrence you can sleep in a garret upstairs in exchange for a couple of hours’ work in the shop and the promise that you will read a book a day. I think the words you’re looking for are ‘Literary Haven’.
S&C has serious literary pedigree, but its origins are often confused; no, it was not where Shakespeare shopped; yes, Richard Linklater’s maniacally twee Before Sunset opens there and it features in Midnight in Paris; no, it is not actually where James Joyce’s Ulysses was first printed and published when no one else would take it. That was S&C Mk.1: Whitman’s bookshop was called ‘Librairie le Mistral’ until 1964, when it was renamed after an earlier bookshop set further back from the Seine on Rue de l’Odéon, run by Sylvia Beach from 1919 until 1941.
That prior bookshop had more impressive pedigree. Beach published for Joyce what is perhaps the greatest novel ever written. Whitman had William Burroughs hanging around to pick up young men, and Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg holding readings at which they would strip naked and shout (April 13 1958 being this particularly famous occasion). All are important endeavours; one is of a higher ilk.
The twee sits adjacent to the camp, and Jaspreet Singh Boparai mounts an exploration of that attribute in his review of the Lukas Duwenhögger survey exhibition at Raven Row. But the twee is always an error of taste, whereas camp can be a more sensible sensibility. Errors of taste of a different kind abound at the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s first exhibition, as Dasha Varvarina discovers, whilst Hayley Daen may commit some in her fishy review of new restaurant Poppie’s on Old Compton Street. Dunjay on O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern and Blarney on labyrinths are, as you know enough to expect, tasty.
I’ve come down hard on the old S&C. I suppose it’s to show that I’m not blind to its grotesquerie; the reason I need to do that is because I drink a coffee in its café most days. From my spot I can see the South Rose Window of the cathedral as I write and sip my cappuccino, in which the waitress has drawn a transient heart.