Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Edited by Krista Halverson
There are 3 things that bring me great joy: receiving a new book from someone who knows me well, perusing libraries whether personal or public, and writing blogs. The newly published Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart has combined all three into a delicious treat!
My daughter Lorin gave me this wonderful treasure for Mother’s Day and I devoured the 382 pages in 3 days. This magical edition combines the 70-year history of the Shakespeare and Company English-language bookstore in Paris with fully illustrated photographs and personal essays, diary entries from George Whitman and poems from over 70 contributors including Allen Ginsberg, David Rakoff, Sylvia Beach (the original owner), Ethan Hawke, Anais Nin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Included in these photographs from the original bookstore opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919 are the Lost Generation writers such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray and Ezra Pound. Sylvia had to close her bookstore during the German occupation. However because of the heart and passion of George Whitman to continue to provide a lending library/bookstore for expats to have their own society in Paris and exchange books, ideas, and a warm meal, Sylvia’s bookstore was reopened.
Whitman wrote, “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.” George passed away in 2011 and bequeathed Shakespeare to his daughter Sylvia and her husband David. The final chapter is a beautiful tribute by Sylvia of her precarious, loving, unique relationship with her father. Sylvia spent her childhood living above the bookstore and was raised and mentored by many of the resident Tumbleweeds and famous authors who frequented the shop.
This bookstore is usually crowded with a mix of tourists browsing books as well as famous patrons who frequent the “reading rooms” and library for book discussions, or possibly to play a tune on the piano! (I once met Ethan Hawke in the library upstairs). There are weekly concerts, poetry readings, literary discussions and classes on photography. In addition, at Shakespeare and Company writers can stay for free in exchange for helping out in the bookstore. Whitman wanted to provide a place where writers had time to write and “to repay the hospitality I received in many countries when I was a vagabond.”
For me personally, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore was a rich haven and respite during my graduate internship in Paris in 2012. I stumbled upon it one day after my Phonetics class on rue Dante directly across the adjacent park. The quiet library upstairs with worn comfy chairs became a great study nook for me. During my study breaks, I would take in the spectacular view of Notre Dame and its hourly chiming or peruse the wonderful personal collection of English classics once owned by Sylvia Beach. At the time, I didn’t know its rich history but was, and still am, drawn to this inviting, inspiring atmosphere which is best described by the English writer, Lawrence Durrell, “one must travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, sit quietly and observe and smell and listen for the spirit of the place which is the most important determinant in culture.” (I have since replicated this in my own home with a reading/lending library).
In the “Writings from a Young Literary Vagabond, 1935-1950” chapter, Whitman shares his strategy for opening this ‘Bone Shop of the Heart’:
After studying the book trade for a number of years, I have concluded the main field where a person can use his limited capital and specialist knowledge to greatest advantage is in the international exchange of books… two thousand titles…and a home of a dilettante polyglot, well-traveled, and with a knowledge and interest in the arts and sciences, the novel, and the people who inhabit the imagination.(76)
I have only 1400 titles to go!
Copyright 2017 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)