There it was, standing not-so-tall on Paris’ West Bank, hiding behind Notre Dame with its yellow and green façade and the Old-World signage. Shakespeare and Company was the best one hour that I spent in Paris. At a time when book stores sitting on valuable acreage face threats of demolition, Shakespeare and Company stands proudly as a symbol of writers—from the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation. I always regretted not studying Shakespeare in school and thought this place was God’s way of making up to me for those bizarre English books of the CBSE curriculum.
The place was a smorgasbord of not just different kinds of writings; it hid behind its crooked and weather-beaten bookshelves the secrets of generations. Though there are a million reasons to love this place but on World Book Day, I list down 10 special ones that are close to my heart:
1. Tucked between some of the shelves in the maze of tiny rooms are cots that have been used by over 30,000 aspiring writers. The owner, George Whitman, called these writers ‘Tumbleweeds’ and apparently writing a one-page autobiography is mandatory for the ‘Tumbleweeds’.
2. The piano on the first floor of the bookstore that can be played by anyone who wishes to, something that holds true for probably every aspect of the store. I tried my hand at it too, slipping into the happy reverie where I am a character from a Jane Austen novel, or maybe Jane Austen herself.
3. The tiny bureau that has a typewriter, a blue chair and is lined with rugs. It bears the sign—"Feel free to use the typewriter for your lovely writing/creative ventures." Did I use it? Of course, I did!
4. Handwritten notes that you can find probably everywhere in Shakespeare and Company. I remember one that was stuck in the tiny room with the typewriter—“For grandma who believed that this place would reopen after World War I. It did granny!”
5. As you flip through the pages of some dilapidated book that you are forced to pick up because that’s just what this place does to you, you can look outside from the French window and capture the stunning view of the Seine. You’d be surprised at your photographic memory for its ability to retain that view for years to come!
6. As you go up the wooden staircase, you will run into Kitty. She’s gorgeous and if cats are territorial, the entire literary world is the territory of this white cat.
7. Besides the love of the handwritten notes, the small rooms at Shakespeare and Company are adorned with whimsical names too—old smoky reading room, blue oyster tearoom; also Whitman's favourite epigrams are painted above doorways.
8. The first floor or the non-commercial floor, as the present owner Slyvia Whitman calls it, is home to a library which has more history in it than you’d find at the MET probably! There is just one rule—books mustn't leave the premises.
9. There is a wishing well here too, though what more could you ask for after you have come here but this well is where customers toss coins for the aspiring writers who are bunking there. The sign says: Feed the starving writers.
10. The iconic history of this place—from Hemingway to Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Joyce to Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Lawrence Durrell, Anaïs Nin, James Jones….writers have found their haven here in every generation.