The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

Kilometer ZeroKilometer Zero is right in front of Notre Dame, on Ile de La Cité. It is the point to which all the highways in France refer.

If you stand on Kilometer Zero, facing Notre Dame, you will see a bridge called the Pont au Double. Cross it to the left bank of the Seine. The large street along the river is St. Michel. Cross it. Now there is a tiny park and after that, you are in front of Shakespeare and Company, the most charming bookstore on earth.

In 1917 Sylvia Beach, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey, opened an American bookshop in Paris called Shakespeare and Company. It was a bookstore, a lending library, and centre of activity and contact for English-speaking writers and artists in Paris.

James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published by Shakespeare and Company, and books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned in England and the U.S. were available to buy or to borrow.

James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Andre Gide, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, Thornton Wilder, Katherine Anne Porter, Janet Flanner, Samuel Beckett, Virgil Thomson, Harry Crosby, Sherwood Anderson, and many others frequented the place.

Shakespeare and Company has become a destination for writers and readers the world over, trying to reclaim the lost world of literary Paris in the 1920s.

Inspired by Sylvia Beach’s original store, the present owner, George Whitman, invites writers who are down and out in Paris to live and dream amid the bookshelves in return for work.

Shakespeare & Co.

In its present incarnation, Shakespeare & Co. was opened by Whitman in August 1951.

George had found himself in Paris after the Second World War, not wanting to return to America straight away. He enrolled at the Sorbonne to improve his French and found a small hotel room on Boulevard St Michel. During his studies he amassed a large collection of English books and used his room as a library and bookstore.

It was only after a conversation with his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti that George took seriously the notion of opening a bookstore in Paris. So, in 1951 he managed to acquire a small apartment opposite Notre Dame de Paris, which was then converted into the front of Shakespeare and Company.

His bookstore is a sanctuary for writers, aspiring writers and artists. From the day that George opened he has invited writers to share his home. Some 50,000 have placed their heads on Shakespeare and Company’s famous pillows. Such people as Henry Miller, Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Alan Ginsberg have shared a tea and a pancake with George.

Since 1951 the bookstore has stubbornly kept its utopian ideals in a changing world. Many who knew the store back in their youth return as adults to find an institution that has not been altered by the passing years. The shop has continued the legacy of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, inviting writers and encouraging new writers. However, George has done it his way. Some have called him an eccentric, while others have called him a light in a dull and homogenized world.”

Some bookstores are filled with stories both inside and outside the bindings. These are places of sanctuary, even redemption.

Rag and Bone Shop of the HeartThe Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

I have let my imagination run wild with the result that a stranger walking the streets of Paris can believe he is entering just another of the bookstores along the left bank of the Seine but if he finds his way through a labyrinth of alcoves and cubbyholes and climbs a stairway leading to my private residence then he can linger there and enjoy reading the books in my library and looking at the pictures on the walls of my bedroom.

Over the years I have combined three stores and three apartments into a bookstore on three floors that Henry Miller called ‘a wonderland of books’.

When I opened my bookstore in 1951 this area in the heart of Paris was crammed with street theatre, mountebanks, junkyards, dingy hotels, wine shops, little laundries, tiny thread and needle shops and grocers. Back in 1600 in the middle of this slum our building was a monastery with a frère lampier who would light the lamps at sunset.

I seem to have inherited his role because for fifty years now I have been your frère lampier.

I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions – just a few old socks and love letters, and my windows overlooking Notre-Dame for all of you to enjoy, and my little rag and bone shop of the heart whose motto is “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”.

I may disappear leaving no forwarding address, but for all you know I may still be walking among you on my vagabond journey around the world.

Shakespeare and Company
37 rue de la Bucherie 75005 Paris

Shakespeare & Co.

Read The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

George & Co., the film

Interview with George Whitman in The Literary Review

One response to “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

  1. I enjoyed reading this immensely. Merci.

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