We all assign meaning to our special places. It may be associated with some event, some person, some memory. Not so long ago I received an e-mail from my cousin and attached to it was a series of photographs of Paris by night. One of these photos brought up one of my special places. So, come with me, and I’ll show you.
First, we take the Metro to the San Michelle. At Place San Michelle we stop for a few minutes at the little café on the corner. Let’s pretend it’s late November and this year’s Beajolais has just been released, and there is a nip in the air. One of the wonderful things about Paris is that you can sit at a table in a café as long as you like, and nobody will bother you not even the waiters. As we sit and enjoy our glass of wine we watch the people and smell the river which is just across the way, we feel the gentle warmth of the heater.
After we finish, we will walk just a short way to the Rue de la Buchene to Shakespeare and Company, Paris’s foremost English language bookstore. We go across to number thirty seven and are greeted by a young person with either a British or French accent; it doesn’t matter because they will be friendly. The first thing we notice is a fire ring in the floor where at one time a fire must have been built to warm the place or to cook something, or both. Like any other bookstore, except for the sham bookstores in the mall, there are too many books for the space. The walkways between the shelves are narrow and poorly lit. The smell of paper fills the air, and when you move a book the dust tickles your nose. The French do not have music in their shops, so the only thing you hear is the other people moving around and a snip of a conversation here and there.
This is not the original Shakespeare and Company. In 1919, Sylvia Beach, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, opened up a bookstore that would specialize in English and American books. For the next twenty one years the store became the premier salon for the writers and artists of the Lost Generation. Almost any one of note came to the shop, Hemingway, Juan Gris, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and many more.
Not only did Sylvia Beach provide a venue for them to meet, she also became somewhat of a patron to some. It was her support that allowed James Joyce to write Ulysses. She provided him with monetary support and published the first edition under her name with her money. As a reward in 1922 Joyce signed with another publisher leaving Sylvia holding the bag. She was able to recoup some of her loss by selling the original plates. If you are lucky you can still find a copy printed with those plates.
In 1940 when the Nazis moved into Paris, Shakespeare and Company disappeared in one night. The shop was closed and the books were hidden in an apartment. Sylvia Beach never reopened the book shop. In 1951 it was opened by another owner.
If ever you are in Paris, you must stop in.