It seems a paradox that such an iconic Paris landmark as Shakespeare & Company would remind an American like me of home. Nothing about the bookstore’s antique façade, view of Notre Dame or stone-walled interiors say America. The familiarity is stacked upon its shelves as it houses the greatest words ever written in the English language, words that Americans in Paris might miss more than they would like to admit.
I imagine it was such a longing that led Sylvia Beach, a New Jersey native, to open the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919. That, and certainly her love of books. American writers of the “Lost Generation” found a home here like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. In “A Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway recounts how Sylvia lent the then unknown writer books for free as he struggled to get his career off the ground while working as a journalist in Paris.
Nearly a century later, the Shakespeare & Company of today is actually a reinvention of the original. A decade or so after its closure during World War II, George Whitman reopened another bookshop inspired by Sylvia Beach’s original, eventually renaming it in tribute. It’s not the only thing George named after the original. He even bestowed the name Sylvia upon his daughter, who runs the Shakespeare & Company of today with the same philosophy of the first Sylvia. Selected writers and readers from across the world are invited to board at the shop during their stay in Paris. On the table outside, the books that could no longer fit on the shelves are given away for free. I share two common languages with the people here; English and literature. It’s a comfort speaking both with the staff and other Americans who come to the shop, as we pull our favorite novels in their original versions from the shelves, asking one another where they’re from and how they ended up here.
The more years I spend in Paris, the more it feels like home. When I’m away I find myself searching for little things that remind me of it here. Inversely, when in France I seek out reminders of my American roots. Somehow in this little bookstore the two merge. When in need of that or just a good read, I come here and take a seat outside, making myself at home in the pages of my favorite books.
Speaking of home, for our next Paris Rendez-vous, Lancôme and I have decided to share with you another excerpt from Brides article “Paris—City of Light and Love.” Catch the first half here if you missed it. See you then!