Sometimes you pick up a book and it changes your perspective. It moves you to become a better person in some way and it urges you to not only achieve your goals but to achieve them in such a way that the community around you benefits because you were there. That's what this book, Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, did for me.
That obscure realm of "Literary" labeled books in the back of the Fiction section at Barnes and Nobel appeals to me. It sits at the end of the alphabet and precedes Mythology and Poetry. It's an odd little nook filled with essay collections, "Best of" short stories, and treatises on everything from Dante's Inferno to How to Read Literature Like a Professor.
I flipped through it a couple of times before I actually sat down to read it. It looked like a lovely collage of siftings from a life well lived. Turns out it's actually a steamer truck filled with one man's life of traveling the world, helping strangers, and urging folk to READ.
The story doesn't start with him, however; it starts with the first owner of Shakespeare and Co.: Sylvia Beach. An American ex-pat, Beach opened Shakespeare and Co. and thrived until Nazi occupation of Paris. After her release from an internment camp, she was forced to close the shop. This, of course, was after entertaining the likes of Hemingway, Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, the Fitzgeralds, and James Joyce. Oh, yeah: and she was the first person to publish Ulysses. (!!!)
Fast forward to the 1950s. Another young, American ex-pat named George Whitman opens a bookshop in Paris after traveling the world and fighting in World War II. With 1,000 books from his own collection, George opened the Librairie le Mistral. Ten years later, Sylvia Beach sold the name Shakespeare and Co. to George and the rest is legend. For over seventy years this tatterdemalion shop facing Notre Dame has held court for Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Anais Nin and so many more. It has been a home way from home for authors and artists, college students and struggling poets and, yes, you can STILL go there, shop there, and sleep there.
The story of the shop is beautiful. It's told through narrative, yes, but mostly through the letters, journals, flyers, and interviews of the people who visited, worked in, and lived in Shakespeare and Co. I cried with longing, reading of the Lost Generation and the Beats all hanging out with one another. An enchanted time it seems, filled with heart ache and hard ship, yes, but also with great artistic achievement and all those giants of literature rubbing elbows, meeting for drinks, and gathering at George's shop for readings, lectures, and protests. Oh to have that sort of community! To gather with writers from all over the world in one labyrinth of books to discuss, debate, and even argue the social issues, the humanitarian issues of the day. I admit it: I'm jealous.
This book opened up a world of books to me. I've been a confirmed reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Murder Mysteries and Ghost Stories my entire life. I realize that my refusal to venture into "real life" literature has been to my detriment. I am at a great loss but it is one that I am in the process of rectifying. I picked up a copy of Ulysses and am reading it along side Proust. Crazy but deliciously so!
If you want to add a beautiful, lyrical, delightful, aching tale of longing to your bookshelves, FIND THIS BOOK! It was published last summer, June 2016 by Shakespeare and Co., Paris. It's not paperback cheap but worth every single penny.
And if you ever, ever get the good fortune to go to Paris, pay a visit to the shop. George's daughter Sylvia now runs it. And for the love of all that is holy, TAKE ME WITH YOU!
I do have a big "0" birthday coming up this year. I would not be opposed to spending it in Paris at a rambling old bookstore. I'm just sayin'... (hint, hint, nudge, nudge)