Crossing the bridge from the majestic site of Notre Dame, you are met with a literary sanctuary hidden amongst the busy, tourist-populated streets of Paris. It is the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, attracting tourists from all over the world, as well as dedicated collectors, and most recently- myself.
The shop is luminous with strings of twinkling lights, the large window acting as a transparent portal to the shelves of books inside. Every day, the sign outside is decorated with a new quote, whilst the cover boards remain decorated with the words of the Paris Wall Newspaper.
'My head is so far up in the clouds, that I can imagine all of us are angels in Paradise. And instead of being a bona fide bookseller, I am more like a frustrated novelist.'
Outside the shop, visitors are met with extra shelves displaying hoards of second-hand books, available for a handful of euros. The place is vibrant with the bustle of tourists and locals alike, and remains that way seven days a week, from the morning sunlight of 10 AM until the warm glow of the street lights at 11 PM. In the surrounding outskirts, the eye need not travel far before spotting someone with a paper or canvas bag embellished with the companies' infamous Shakespeare logo.
The shop was founded in 1951 by George Whitman, converting the place from its original function as a monastery. In April 1962, 400 years after Shakespeare's birth, the shop became eponymously and unequivocally dedicated to the legacy of the playwright. Customers receive a stamp on the front page of any book they purchase, and a large portrait graces the shop window, confirming that without a doubt: Shakespeare resides here.
Since its opening day, the shop has acted not only as a mouthpiece but even as a literal refuge for the scholars of literature. Writers and artists have been invited to stay amongst the books, using makeshift beds, on the worthy conditions that they provide help at the shop, read exactly one book every day, and complete a short autobiography of their experiences. Years later, a never-ending bank of these accounts exists, documenting the dreamy tales of aspiring writers.
Even today, great names can be found within the walls of Shakespeare and Company, including the likes of Kate Granville and Carol Ann Duffy. Following his passing in 2011, Goerge Whitman has essentially left behind a safe-haven for creativity; a place that he deemed a 'socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.' His beautiful creation lies exactly at Kilometre Zero, the place where all French roads begin. I am comforted by the subtle implication behind this detail: that no matter how far we may travel, all roads lead us back to art, in whichever form it may take.
I visited this shop for the second time a few days ago, during my short stay in Paris. This year I left with a copy of The French Lieutenant's Woman, a subsequent novel of my beloved author John Fowles. I was drawn to the aesthetic nature of the store, with its alluring quotes and vintage decoration, but what I was truly captivated by was its the charming history.
It is a place literally built upon the foundations of dedicated individuals, hoping for a future in the world of arts. This poignant backstory makes it an essential landmark for any tourist, and indeed to any eager fan of books.
It is a store that reminds me, as if I was not already sure, that the practice of reading and writing literature is the greatest thing in the world.