You can learn a lot about a city by browsing through its most beloved bookstore. More often than not it’s the best place to discover local literature, cultural events, and the area’s most colorful residents. At Shakespeare and Company on Paris’s Left Bank, book lovers have a chance to experience all of the above and so much more.
The store was borne out of a relatively modern era in the city’s rich history. First opened in 1919, it came just as Paris was emerging as a literary hot spot. Part-time Parisians like James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway used the store as one of their many gathering places during the 1920s.
Jump forward ninety years and Shakespeare and Co. still maintains the iconic charm of prewar Paris. In today’s age when it’s rare to find a person reading something other than a screen, stepping inside Shakespeare and Company feels like visiting a bygone era.
Flickr photo via Alexandre Duret-Lutz
Their vast collection of new, rare, and secondhand books overflows the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that line the store. The few bare spaces left on the walls are branded with quotes like this one: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” This sentiment is especially fitting considering the shop once doubled as a boarding house for aspiring writers. Former owner George Whitman claimed to have housed 40,000 visitors in the store’s sleeping facilities over the years.
The “Tumbleweed Hotel,” as it’s affectionately nicknamed, is still open to guests free of charge. All that’s required is that they work two hours a day in the store, read one book a day, and write a one-page biography of their lives. Upstairs, there’s an entire room filled with thousands of these biographies stretching back nearly fifty years. While staying there sounds like the experience of a lifetime, it’s best to keep a back-up plan in mind. Reservations can’t be made ahead of time, so the only shot you have at a spot is to show up and ask the owner in person.
Flickr photo via motfemme
Even if there’s no room at the inn when you’re there, Shakespeare and Company still provides plenty of opportunities to fulfill your bohemian writer fantasies. There’s no shortage of comfy armchairs and secret nooks perfect for curling up with a good book or providing inspiration for a story of your own. If you left your notebook at home, look for one antique of their typewriters and try channeling your inner Hemingway. After a day spent soaking up this piece of literary history, don’t forget to show your support by purchasing a book for the road. We recommend reading it at the nearest cafe while enjoying coffee and a croissant, just like a true Parisian.