In 2006 and 2008, I had the pleasure of reading from my novels at the legendary Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. thanks partly to the late David Applefield, Paris writer and editor whose scintillating literary mag, FRANK, was once published in connection with the bookstore, and included works by Raymond Carver and Mavis Gallant. David, who had been encouraged by Lawrence Durrell to found his own publishing company, was one of my writing mentors and a constant source of inspiration, as he always had some new cultural project on the stove. In the nineties, at the age of 39, he was profiled in the NYTs, who praised his unique combination of a "heart for poetry and head for business."
David was about to leave Paris when we last met in January 2019, on his way back to NJ to run for Congress. But his dreams to reconnect culture and politics were not to be. He died unexpectedly in the spring of 2020. My memories of Paris are bound up with our quick visits and long chats over lunch in a tiny, dimly lit Tunisian restaurant near his home in the suburbs, or coffee near the Sorbonne.
The following blog was written in 2006, while I was in Paris for my first reading @ Shakespeare & Co, which took place in the library upstairs.
Just across the bridge from Notre Dame on Rue de la Bucherie, Shakespeare and Company, bookstore, library, shrine, and make-shift hotel, welcomes readers, writers, and drifters. Officially recognized by the City of Paris as part of its cultural heritage, the shop was founded in 1951 by George Whitman and is now owned and operated by Sylvia Whitman, daughter of this amazing gentleman who was born in 1912. Named in honor of the bookstore founded in the 20s by Sylvia Beach in Rue de l'Odeon, which first promoted the works of James Joyce and Ezra Pound, Whitman's bookshop and "reading room" was a gathering place for the expatriate writers who streamed into Paris in the post-war period. Shakespeare & Company still offers hospitality to writers and students who are allowed to stretch out their sleeping bags after closing time and to read their works to the public on Monday nights. George Whitman, sharp, spry and frail, invites me to stay the night as a Tumbleweed, but unaware of this option, I have made other plans. (Later I will regret missing this opportunity.)
Shakespeare and Company is open from noon till midnight, and the setting up of the store for a day of business is a ritual to behold. Shortly before noon, a small crowd gathers on the pavement, huddled in the cold, waiting for permission to enter this temple of the English language. Lodged in what was once part of a 16th century monastery, with a faded portrait of the Old Bard above the green- shuttered windows – the place looks more like an old English pub until the great shutters are folded back to reveal book-crammed windows – with first editions of Anais Nin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti displayed in front. The bustling staff scurries about, dragging boxes of second-hand books out to the street, filling up empty shelves outside the shop. They remind me of stagehands preparing for a performance.
Returning later in the evening for the reading, I am ushered up a cracked and narrow wooden staircase to the upstairs rooms. The low ceiling beams are pockmarked with woodworms, charred by the fire which devastated the place in 91. Everywhere there are musty books packed onto sagging shelves and yellowing photographs of Whitman with his close friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Yet this is no museum, but a living library with people, young and old, sitting on benches or even on the worn arabesque rugs, browsing through volumes not for sale, but feely accessible to anyone who would like to consult them. It is, as Henry Miller said, "a wonderland of books."
Headlights of cars along Quai de Montebello flash by in the night but inside this sanctuary, people sit ,quiet and attentive, waiting for the reading to begin. To read here is to take a place in a chain, to participate in a tradition. The emphasis is not on selling books but creating an exchange. The atmosphere is layered with the palpable presence of writers, famous or obscure, who have read or spoken here, of audiences who have gathered to listen over an arc of fifty years. --2006
2020 POSTSCRIPT: Like many bookstores around the world, Shakespeare and Co. has been hit hard by Covid and lockdown, with an 80% drop in sales. To face the uncertain future, they have founded an association to help support the bookshop through members' donations. Please see their site and consider a small donation. https://friendsofshakespeareandcompany.com