Parisian mecca of bookshops survives in era of Amazon
Over the past decade I’ve watched the iconic cultural places in our city disappear one by one. Places like Maxwell Street and Halsted, the birthplace of Chicago jazz and blues and a hangout for writers like Nelson Algren, destroyed and rebuilt with a glossy soulless exterior.
I just assumed it was the same story everywhere. That’s when I found out Shakespeare & Company Bookshop was still open for business. I’d first heard about the shop when I began reading Earnest Hemingway’s work. When I got into Kerouac, there it was again. Many of the Beats hung out there and slept amongst the bookshelves.
These were the two generations more than any other in American literature that made me want to be a writer, so I decided to drop in during my trip to Paris this past summer.
Shakespeare & Company sits in a small stone courtyard just across the Seine from the Notre Dame Cathedral.
A sign scribbled in chalk near the entrance reads, "Some People call me the Don Quixote of the French Quarter because my head is so far up in the clouds that I can imagine all of us Angels in Paradise."
It finishes with the line, “I have been doing this for fifty years, now it is my daughter’s turn.”
The message is dated January 2004. That’s when George Whitman handed over his beloved bookshop to his then-24-year-old daughter Sylvia. His daughter is named after the shop’s original owner, an American expatriate named Sylvia Beach who first opened Shakespeare & Company’s doors in the early 20th century.
Upon entering the bookshop, I didn’t have to look far to find Sylvia Whitman, perched at her desk just inside the shop’s left-side entrance where the antique books are sold. Sylvia is a fair-skinned, bright-eyed, 29-year-old businesswoman. She grew up in the apartment above the shop, where authors like Lawrence Durrrell regularly visited.
“Running around without shoes on, hiding in corners and being read stories upon stories upon stories. It was a fairy tale childhood,” Whitman said.
While many independent bookstores have closed their doors because of declining sales, Sylvia has maintained Shakespeare & Company’s loyal customer base and its legacy.
“I’ve tried to keep the atmosphere and the philosophy that Dad created, so we still have writers sleeping in the bookshop,” she said.
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