Shakespeare & Company

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When I told my uncle the lawyer I’d be traveling and writing, he told me if I wanted to know how to travel and write and how to write about traveling, then I needed to read Hemmingway. So I’ve been reading lots of Hemmingway lately. My uncle’s been my toughest critique growing up. In school my grades were never good enough and I never tried hard enough, but I must have liked it because I’ve always gone back for his advice. He reads more than anyone I know, except for my friend’s wife who reads a book every two days and you can hear it when she talks. I’d like to know that many words, but I do too many things and don’t have the time.

Ten years ago I went into a music shop in a town that I’d never been in before which was only about twenty minutes from where I grew up. The girl working at the counter was younger than me and thin and cute and she talked like she’d been around the world and read as many books as my uncle. I liked her and wanted to get her number. That’s what we did at that age, we got girls numbers. I never had much trouble talking to girls once it started, but if I thought about starting it, then it usually never happened. However on that day my friends tortured me and wouldn’t leave until I went back inside. So I did and I got her number and we talked on the phone, but we never got together and I forgot about her except for the few times we crossed paths over the years. Today we’re old friends and we act like it.

When Lauren saw on my website that I was in Paris, she sent me a little email in prose which reminded me that I know very little about literature and writing and also that she is an aspiring writer. She said she’d be in Paris soon and told me about a bookstore here that might let me sleep in the library upstairs in exchange for a few hours of work each day. I liked Paris right away and wanted to spend some time here, but the tenfold jump in cost from living in India was making it a difficult decision.

I found the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in the Latin Quarter across the river from Notre Dame. It was next to a park with a clear view of the cathedral. When I came there the weather was perfect; the kind of perfect I had to keep talking about all day because I just couldn’t believe it. The store reminded me of a kitchen cabinet overstuffed with cereal boxes. All the books that made up the walls there were smashed together; some old, some new and some so ancient that I thought they likely sat there for aesthetic appeal. It wasn’t long ago that I discovered my love for literature, which I’m excited about, but the place made me feel young and inexperienced.

I picked up a collection of short stories by Hemmingway titled “A Moveable Feast”. I knew if I bought it I’d never get through the book I was currently reading, so I put it down and made it a motivation to finish reading about Tibetan Magic, which I did that night. There were books piled on the floor and on tables and I wondered how many interesting titles were hidden from view. The place was a maze to walk through. I thought about how everything old is messy and wondered if things were messy in their day or if time just makes them that way.

There was a girl working hard. She bent over and up and carried books back and forth from piles to shelves. I couldn’t make much sense of what she was doing besides working really hard. I wondered if that’s how hard I’d need to work in order to sleep there. It would be ok, I thought. I hadn’t done any work in months and it might be good for me to work hard. A customer interrupted the girl with a request. She’d never heard of the book. I wondered if I’d have to know of lots of books and to help all the customers that came looking for obscurities and classics I’d never heard of.

There was another guy who was working, but he looked less busy so I asked him about staying. He asked how long and I was hesitant to answer, because I didn’t want to say too little or too much. After prodding for some clarification, I told him at least a week. He said that was good enough and took me to speak with the manager.

“You want to stay?” she asked expectedly.

“Yea, how’d you know?” I said.

“You looked excited,” she said smiling.

Her voice was happy and bright and it made you see all of her at once as someone who’s that way all the time. Her hair was curly blond, her skin natural and clean and white and her English accent fit just right with the store and the whole idea of talking to a manager about sleeping in her library. She told me to come back on Sunday, but that it shouldn’t be a problem. I asked her name and she told me, but a minute later I wasn’t sure of it. I always ask, but I hardly ever remember. I said I’d be back on Sunday.

On Saturday I found myself in a different bookstore. It was modern and organized with bright lights. I wondered if people at Shakespeare &Company only shopped at old bookstores where the shelves sagged and it was hard to find things. I found one copy of “A Moveable Feast” and thumbed through the pages stopping at a story titled “Shakespeare &Company”. Hemmingway wrote about a bookstore in Paris, how they let him borrow books on a promise and how he loved the place and the kind owner named Sylvia. The idea of staying there became more exciting. I thought maybe I’d be trying too hard to be like Hemmingway, but the truth is I do want to be like him. I’m new to reading classics, but so far he’s my favorite and I’d like to write about my ideas and the ways I see the world and have people get it like they do when they read his stories. It’s not that I thought reading and writing at one of Hemmingway’s hangouts would somehow give me his abilities, but it could surly be inspiring.

I walked from the modern bookstore to a café up by the river with my new paperback copy of “A Moveable Feast”. Hemmingway often wrote about writing and the first story was about writing in a café in St Michael’s Place about life in Michigan and how the weather was cold and rainy in Paris that day and how he said that was good because in the story it was cold and rainy in Michigan, which he called ‘transplanting’ and said worked very well. I was excited to be learning things. The name of the café In Hemmingway’s story sounded familiar and I looked up to see where I was. Through a light drizzle and between people hugging themselves to bare the chill that had blown in with the rain, I saw a blue plaque inset on the granite building across the street. On it were white letters that read “Place Saint Michael”.

I made sure I got to the bookstore right at noon on Sunday, not wanting to lose my chance at a bed. I had already checked out of my hostel and by the huffing and puffing of the manager when I had asked to stay another night, I figured every hotel in Paris was probably full. While walking towards the store, I spotted the guy I’d spoken with on Friday who had taken me to speak with Sylvia. I remembered her name by then, because, as I’d learn later, she was named after the true character in Hemmingway’s story.

Johnathan was probably about my age, but more read and less relaxed. He dressed like an older French man and fit the store better than the others in bright shirts and white sneakers who were moving books and boxes outside. I thought they were probably temporary visitors like I hoped I’d be. He saw me approaching.

“You’re going to have to wait a few minutes,” he said facing me and waving his hands.

“Ok man, no problem.”

His eyes were raised and his stress came right out the doorway and straight into me, but I saw it coming and smiled and stepped back and tried as best I could to make him know it was ok and I was calm and no matter how long it took I wouldn’t complain, because I was a nice guy and he’d like me and would be sure to have a spot for me.

I waited for three hours, then he came out of the store, walked past me without looking, unlocked his bike and rode away. Sylvia had arrived a short while before and I was sure he must have told her I was waiting, so I decided not to be a bother and waited some more. I was patient and they’d like me, plus I was reading my book and even though I was freezing from sitting outside, that’s what I was there to do anyway; read. So I waited until I saw she was not busy and still not coming to speak with me and then I went inside.

“Hi” I said smiling.

“Hi” she said smiling back.

“Hi” I said again.

“Oh, hi! You came back?”

She sounded pleased and surprised to see me. I thought maybe she didn’t recognize me standing outside, which meant neither did Johnathan and all my patience and reading in the cold was actually me being over patient and really Johnathan just thought I wanted to get in with my forty pound pack as a customer to look at books the minute they opened. I felt bad for being frustrated with him for making me wait, but I was glad I did, because I’d read almost all of “A Moveable Feast” and was looking forward to reading it again.

I thought Sylvia would have good news. She introduced me to Oirisn, a tall, light-skinned kid with straight dark hair who came to Paris from Dublin with his girlfriend who studies nineteenth century literature illustration. They had built some new shelves and he was putting the travel guides back in alphabetical order. Sylvia asked if I minded helping him. Finally sure I had a place to sleep that night, I obliged and got started right away.

Oirisn told me how the first store, the one that Hemmingway visited, was a couple of blocks away and owned by a woman named Sylvia Beach and how about sixty years ago it closed and the place where I’m staying now was opened in 1951 by the current owner George Whitman. Oirisn showed me the library upstairs where I’d read, write and sleep and where beat generation writers like Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg read, wrote and slept some years ago.

There are five other twenty-something literary hopefuls staying at the store too. They filled the upstairs beds, so I slept alone on the first floor in the Russian literature section. It was strange and surreal sleeping there. The bed was covered with books and used as a seat for customers during the day. I had to clear them off to make room for sleeping. The shop was dark, the aisles clogged with the benches and tables that went out on the sidewalk during open hours. A little of the street’s glow poured in through the front windows and cast long shadows revealing only the titles of books that stuck out far enough to catch some light. As I lay on the bed, I randomly picked up a translation of short stories by the Russian writer Franz Kafka. I opened, read and got excited about how much there is to learn.

Finally tired, I rolled my sweatshirt into a pillow and put my head down. Looking up and all around, it felt like I was ten years old inside a tree fort I’d built with my friends that was strong and sturdy but had not a single straight edge or corner to it. No matter where I looked, books filled my eyes and I even when I closed them I could still see the books. I went to sleep thinking about all the writers and literary scholars that know about Shakespeare & Company and Hemmingway and Sylvia and the beat generation writers and George Whitman and I felt honored, special and lucky. I couldn’t believe I was there.

I think I’ll stay for awhile.

4 Thoughts on “Shakespeare & Company”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Hey now that sounds like a cool place to stay! You’re well on your way to being a good writer, you have a very distinct ‘voice’ in the way you write. Have fun sleeping amongst the books!

  2. kevin Says:

    i look forward to seeing photos from this destination.

  3. Nathan Bitzer Says:

    I am now a man of 30 years. I got my exposure to Shakespeare & Company when I visited as a junior in high school back in 1993. At that time I wasn’t into reading but I found that the store held an interest for me. It contains a lot of stories that I couldn’t retrieve from anyone.

    George Whitman if he is still alive is probably pushing 100 now. He is bit of a cranky old man. I guess I was told he has good days and bad and when I visited, it was a bad day. He is a throwback to the beat generation of the 50’s

    I partially understand your love of literature as I have started to delve into classic in the last year. Hemmingway might be a great direction to go.

  4. Dana Says:

    Your life is a movie, John. It inspires many. Keep reading and writing. Let all those stories on the dusty shelves make their way into your dreams. Pick up Anna Karenina while you’re sleeping in the Russian Lit section…

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