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Shakespeare & Company – a visit to an iconic book store in Paris

Imagine a bookshop that has literary history whispering from every corner. Besides being an iconic store where great minds once met and in which today literary events are common, Shakespeare & Company in Paris has become a pilgrimage spot for literature lovers from all over the world, says Manjira Mazumdar who visited the shop a few months ago

Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground for all minds that have lost their balance – James Joyce, Ulysses

I always thought Shakespeare & Company was a theatre company till I discovered James Joyce, the Irish writer. I must confess that even as a Comparative Literature student I had not wholly grasped or enjoyed reading Joyce as much as I did Dostoevsky or Flaubert and, of course, the Homer epics, Odysseus and Iliad. I could also recite parts of the Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses.

Shakespeare & Company’s eye-catching façade reflects old world character and charm.

Yet, Joyce remains an enigma for several other reasons. He lived in Paris from 1920 to 1940. It was a time of great minds coming together in a vibrant city. Another Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, too, lived here 1937 onwards, during which time Joyce mentored him. Whatever happened to them career-wise or in their personal lives are mere details in the face of their work that made them legends.

Already author of short stories in his book, Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce could not find a publisher for Ulysses. Parts of it were excerpted in The Little Review in 1918-20 and, subsequently, further publication of the book was banned, prompted by sexual descriptions.  And this is where Shakespeare & Company in Paris comes into the picture. Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the bookshop she founded in 1911, pursued publication of the book with single-minded focus. She bankrolled the project by not only publishing it first in 1922, in Paris, but aided copies to be smuggled to the UK and the US. The pirated version was printed till 1939 when the ban was lifted.

Every year, June 16 is celebrated by Joyce’s fans all over the world as Bloomsday, named after the protagonist of the novel, Leopold Bloom, who first dates his wife Molly on that date in the book. In fact, the story traces a single day, June 16, 1904, in the lives of several characters in Dublin, Ireland. 

I visited Shakespeare & Company in Paris on a late warm September afternoon in 2023. The very location of the store on the left bank of River Seine is worth mentioning. From this iconic bookshop near the Latin Quarters, one can spot the Notre Dame undergoing massive renovation after a raging fire destroyed the top parts of it. The whole area throbs with a vibrancy of shops, cafes and galleries attracting tourist footfalls.  It was indeed magical. Not overcrowded as it usually is, you can have a lovely time browsing through the titles, mostly English. A range of Russian and French (translations) classics jostles for place with English titles inside the old shop that has shifted location thrice. 

On request, the name of the store is stamped on the front page of any book bought.

There are second-hand books here as well. But for more such books in French, you just have to cross the street to find a row of kiosk-like units selling them. Do not dare ask the shopkeepers the prices – you will be met with angry looks.  Gradually, as the late afternoon ripens to evening, a queue begins to form outside the shop that has become a pilgrimage spot for literature, especially for Joyce lovers. There are other memorabilia on sale such as notepads, with the name of the shop stamped on it. A musician is playing an instrument outside. The coffee shop nearby is getting quite crowded. I make my purchases and reflect on the shop’s legacy. 

An American, George Whitman, bought Shakespeare & Company in 1951. It had closed in 1941 after Sylvia Beach had probably returned to the US. Today, it is owned by Whitman’s daughter Sylvia, named after Sylvia Beach. 

(The writer is an independent journalist and author. She lives in Kolkata.)