Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Writing in Paris: Shakespeare & Co Bookshop

Photo of me courtesy Donica Detamore 2004

Because I am a writer and have a BA in English, I want the first post on this blog to be about Shakespeare & Co, the bohemian bookshop on the left bank of the Seine.

George Whitman (rumor has it he is related to Walt), now in his nineties, bought the bookstore in 1951, continuing the legacy of Sylvia Beach’s (publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses) Shakespeare & Company bookstore, which was around the corner. Whitman named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman. 

me with George Whitman in 1997
after I bought my book of Phillip Larkin poems

The motto of his shop is “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise,” which is painted above a doorway with a stack of books that reaches from the floor to the lintel.

Mr. Whitman, an American living in Paris for over half a century, has taken his bibliophilism to a philanthropic extreme by inviting writers through the decades to stay in his upstairs rooms above the bookshop. The Web site says he has hosted 50,000 writers! Aspiring writers help out around the beautifully cluttered bookstore to earn their rest on his pillow.

On a visit in 2004, I sat on a bench in front of the store while Donica shopped, and when Mr. Whitman appeared at his upstairs window, then opened it -- and his arms -- to me and asked “Do you have a place to stay?” it was clear he “knew” I was a writer and was honoring me with his traditional courtesy. (Thankfully my sister Ginnie was there to snap a photo.) I did already have another pillow in Paris, but I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to lodge with Mr. Whitman for a night or a week, sharing morning conversation over tea and a pancake before descending the stair to sweep up after last night’s reading. I think George Whitman is an angel in disguise.

George Whitman opening his arms and hospitality to me in October 2004 
Photo courtesy Ginnie Hart

Famous writers (Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin among them) have met with Mr. Whitman over the years, and some have read in the shop’s weekly readings.

The bookstore is packed with piles of books, without a clear organizational system except for sections of poetry, history, etc.

Each book you purchase is stamped with this logo that reads: Shakespeare & Co. Kilometer Zero Paris.

You can take a virtual tour of the bookshop. You'll notice that the Notre Dame cathedral looms just across the Seine when you exit the bookshop.

Shakespeare & Co Bookshop, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie


Ginnie said...

Talk about memories! This blog is gonna be incredible for ME because of you being our tour guide in Paris over a year ago. I can already anticipate being like a kid saying "I'VE been THERE!" with almost everything you post.

I love that you started with the Shakespeare & Co Bookshop. That was ingenious of you. May it be the first of many wonderful posts to come!

Somehow I think Dad is getting a kick outta you starting this blog on his "homegoing" anniversary.

Clo said...

Wow Ruth! This is great! I love Paris too... well, I guess everybody do!

And it is funny because I did a post last Friday of my bookshop! But mine is a little tiny thing in comparison!

Thank you for sharing this with us, I do love the panoramic views... I played with those like a kid...

lesleyanne said...

i never saw that photo of George from his balcony! how adorable. i just love that story.
and you look so beautiful in that photo of the two of you.
i think Paris makes you more beautiful than you already are.

...but maybe you already knew that.

i love you and i'm so excited about this blog.

lesleyanne said...


Ruth said...

Ginnie: I love the memories I have with you and D, with Don and with Nancy. Makes it all better. I'm glad "someone" -- especially you -- will want to read this blog! :)

Clo: I will go look at your bookshop post. Glad you stopped by! What's your favorite thing in Paris??

Les: Thank you, sweetheart! Yes, this is a story to treasure, that's for sure. I am waiting for the day (hope it's SOON) when we can go to Paris together. You will be my French-speaker, and I will watch you fall in love with that city too.

rachel said...

Yea, I am excited to take journeys to Paris with you! I don't know if I shall ever set foot in that city- it used to be a dream of mine, but it died when Scott and I broke up. For years we planned to go there together. Who knows when that city will be mine again. He went there without me last year, and he wrote to me telling me that I had stolen the city from him- he could not enjoy it without me. Maybe someday...

Donica said... give Paris to us on our trip in 2004. I never wanted to go there but you definitely "deconstructed" it for us. Now, I would meet you there in a minute!

Looking forward to learning more about this wonderful city from your point of view.

Ruth said...

Rachel: That is a hard thing to hear from Scott, and I hope you can both find the beauty of that city independently of each other. Maybe the first visit will help get rid of some of that awkwardness, and then you can just enjoy! I'd love it if you go with me sometime!

Donica: Let's go!

rachel said...

I would love to go to Paris with you, too!!! Maybe we can all start planning a trip together for some upcoming year!

Clo said...

Coming from the recent post of Ginnie (May 2nd) I'm back here and see your question. I do hope you receive your comments in your Email.

I think what I like the most about Paris is when I go to a place, and suddenly I recognize something I learned or a place I saw before on an old pic. Probably because my ancestors are from France, and here we know a lot about it, we are really connected with French culture. So there is plenty of things we know about in France.

One of my best memorie, is being at the point of Ile-Saint-Louis, where the Notre-Dame is, and waiting for the "bateau-mouche". I saw a commemorative plate saying that it was at this same place that in 1314, the three members of the Templier Order where burned! Do you know the book by Maurice Druon, "Les rois maudits"? They made a TV serie with those, I saw it two times, and I read the five volumes of the book. The story begin with the burning of those Templiers. So knowing I was at that exact place, I remembered about the book, the characters, the description of the place, and it was really as if I had done a travel through time!

jiva said...

There is not one photo in this blog that I do not enjoy. They are all so direct and representative of the time when I was there. It's a banquet of goodies for the eyes. Thanks Ruth.

Ruth said...

Yay! Thank you, Jiva! :)

jiva said...

Another trip to Paris today, via your beautiful blog. I can't afford to go there now, so your free trip is so appreciated!

dutchbaby said...

First of all, you are gorgeous!!!

I enjoyed meeting Mr. Whitman through your eyes. I do think he is an angel in disguise.

Ruth said...

So glad, Jiva! Me too.

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear Dutchbaby!

I haven't heard if Mr. Whitman is still alive. I just checked, and wiki has him born 1912, but no death date! So he's 97, wow.

Deslilas said...

Belle surprise, retrouver ce post et ces photos !

Ruth said...

Bonjour, Daniel! De rien. :)

Arti said...


I'm using your blog here as a tour guide... yes, I'm heading to Paris in August! Will definitely visit Shakespeare and Co. As a matter of fact, I'll be staying in a hotel quite close to the bookstore! I'm so excited reading your blog here! Thanks for all the itinerary recommendations!

jiva said...

My nephew tells me that he and his entire family have swapped houses in the countryside outside Paris for two weeks in August. How fabulous. They live in Yarmouth, Maine, a New England manor by the sea, so it should be wonderful for both families. I am so happy for them. Last year it was Spain. The year before Italy. Swapping houses, what a great idea.

lakeviewer said...

I'm visiting from ds's blog, hoping to hang around as we sip a dark coffee and talk about Paris.

California Girl said...

What a fun experience! He looks and sounds like an incredible guy.

There is a scholarly book on the shop called "Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation". I'd say it came out around 2000 which is when I read it. If you haven't read it, you will enjoy.