In 2011, I spent Bloomsday at Shakespeare and Company, the famous English bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris. The store is a jewel box: two stories, stacked with books buried beneath more books. On the first floor, a piano room provides a corner for readers to hide in, beneath towering stacks of hardcover biographies. There’s the children’s section with a miniature bed draped in red velvet, a typewriter tucked into a booth along the hallway, and then the library, lined with benches and books, the windows cracked, framing Notre Dame and cherry branches. Because it was Bloomsday in the store named for the store that had originally published Ulysses, an artist had been commissioned to draw Joycean-inspired works. There were readings throughout the day and devotees drifted through.
I’d been living there as a tumbleweed for nearly three weeks. The tumbleweed program is unique at Shakespeare & Co and has been a feature of the store since it opened in 1951. In exchange for some hours of work, artists are allowed to sleep between the stacks, free of charge. Since the early days, the program has become a bit more defined. Tumbleweeds help open and close the store, as well as work for two hour scheduled shifts throughout the day. Since it was the middle of June, the store was packed. I was one of seven staying at the time, many of whom I already considered close friends.
That evening, the tumbleweeds hopped a cab to a lavish home where the store was hosting a party for their first Paris Literary Prize. The party was an aberration in the daily routines I’d become adjusted to: taking a shower in either the public showers on Ile de la Cité or in the third floor, doing my best not to splash water outside the tarp or incur the housekeeper’s wrath, also doing my best not to wake a sleeping George Whitman. Then I’d pull on jean shorts and a t-shirt, grab a book, wander along the Seine, help between the stacks of the store, run off to some park or some wine bar or some museum. I purchased a copy of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, the cover blue with a liquid woman and most of the pages paperclipped to keep them together. Most mornings, I woke early, bought a coffee and croissant, and read Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital along the Seine, until it was time to make my way back for the store to open.
On Bloomsday, however, the tumbleweeds had been enlisted to help at the party. We were required to look presentable. We had to do our best not to smell like we’d been sleeping on the floor of Shakespeare & Co for weeks. We had to wear black dresses. I picked up mine for five euros from an H&M. The tumbleweeds poured champagne and refilled cheese plates, pausing to listen to toasts and an opera singer, stealing away to touch up lipstick next to the chic Parisians who put our pink shade to shame. Then, we got drunk on champagne and danced.
At the end of the night, there weren’t enough cars to get everyone back to the store. We were offered a choice: waiting thirty minutes for the next cab, or taking three free bottles of champagne. We took the champagne and we walked. It was a few miles, but we just had to stay on the one road and keep going. We drank straight out of the bottles. We held hands and exchanged secrets and skipped a few steps forward to turn and photograph ourselves: tipsy tumbleweeds in black dresses.
The bookstore has just released A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Edited by Krista Halverson, the biography reads like a multi-faceted oral history and is told in many layers: colored photographs, tumbleweed biographies, recountings from former employees and writers-in-residence. The story it tells is as varied, unique, and romantic as the shop is. It’s a difficult thing, to capture something as expansive as the history of Shakespeare & Co, but this history manages to come close.
At the center of the story is George Whitman. He opened the store, originally named Librairie le Mistral (“Le Mistral”), in 1951 on 37 rue de la Bucherie, across the Seine from Notre Dame. He’d purchased the building — back then without electricity and fashioned like three long, railroad-style rooms — from an Algerian grocer looking to move out to the countryside with his family. Despite the building having been condemned for nearly a century, Whitman decided to go for it.
Over the next six decades, the store would go through many chapters. The events, in and of themselves, each seem larger than life: the Beat Generation infiltrating the store; the spies that circled it, applying for employment, during the Cold War; the years the shop was closed down because the Parisian authorities had finally figured out that Whitman didn’t have the appropriate permits; the filming of Jorge Luis Borges’s collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Invasion, and then, years later, Ethan Hawke’s fictional book release in Before Sunset. The store has been at the center of riots and movements, with Whitman often leading the charge. He created a home for bohemians and wanderers in the middle of Paris. It didn’t always flourish, but the community grew, and when it came time to give back to the store, after a fire ravaged its shelves, benefits were held around the world. The list of authors that haunted the shop is formidable: Allen Ginsberg, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Doris Lessing, and Jeanette Winters, among so many others.
Whitman, who died in December of 2011, had long wanted to write a history of the store. The title, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, was his. He never got around to it, as easily distracted as he could be, but the story of Shakespeare & Co is his story to tell, and he told it to varying degrees of truthfulness. As is quoted on the back of the book, Whitman said: “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.”
Whitman himself could seem like a larger-than-life character. I was lucky enough to meet him before he died. Even in his pajamas, his untameable white hair poking in every direction, he held a room. Lawrence Ferlinghetti described Whitman as a “romantic wanderer, the kind of wayward Walt Whitman carrying Coleridge’s albatross.” To Anais Nin, Whitman seemed “undernourished, bearded, a saint among his books, lending them, housing penniless friends upstairs, not eager to sell.” Allen Ginsberg said of him: “He’s a saint, lives on nothing, gives shelter to everybody. Helps young poets, too, but he’s very poor. Someone should do something for him. His only income came from books.”
Whitman told many that he considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to be about him. He hid money in books and then forgot where he’d put them. Sometimes he’d refuse to sell a book if he didn’t want to part with it. Once, he got it into his head that he wanted a pyrotechnic wishing well in the middle of the store. It was ill-planned and dangerous and someone else had to rush in and stop him from burning the shop down. Whitman was known to set his hair on fire if a reading was boring or if he needed a haircut. Other times, he’d interrupt a reading by tossing chicken down from the top floor for his dog to catch
When his daughter, Sylvia Whitman, started to help maintain the bookstore, doing her best to bring it into the 21st century, he resisted. He hated any attempt she made at modernity and did his best to sabotage her. If she alphabetized books, he’d come down after closing to return the store to its rightful disorder. He attacked the newly installed, no-longer-life-threatening stairs with a hammer, the same hammer he used to destroy the toilet Sylvia had installed. He literally stole the cash register under cover of night and, the next morning, pretended he had no clue of its whereabouts. Best guess: bottom of the Seine.
He also loved to tell stories about Shakespeare & Co, helping to imbue the shop with its own mythology. Whitman winked at a relation to Walt Whitman and an affair with Nin: “I might have loved her once.” In her journals, Nin wrote how Whitman had originally come to Paris to find a houseboat, inspired by her story, “Houseboat,” except that the books had mildewed, so “he moved as near to the river as possible, and often from his window, watching the river, he had the illusion he was living on a houseboat.” Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart appropriately sets this recounting aside, with a swift: “This story isn’t accurate.” More than likely, it’s a story Whitman told Nin.
At the beginning of Halverson’s attempts to collect these stories into a publishable history, she worked on the top floor of the shop, where Whitman used to live. She sorted through his papers, all kept in wine crates and plastic tubs. Many friends of the store came by, offering their own experiences and inquiring after stories they’d heard: “Did William Shakespeare really establish the shop while on vacation from playwriting in London? Was James Joyce buried in the building’s cellar?”
Halverson writes that “the story of Shakespeare and Company is not simply a set of facts and dates; it’s also a feeling, an emotion.” She “wanted to construct a book like a box of treasures that would be valuable both to those who know the shop well and to those who’ve only just learned of it.”
With A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, Halverson has managed that. The book is electric, dense with details and filled with the ephemera and lore and love one finds when stepping into the shop.
Each night at the bookstore felt like magic. There was the night we ran through the streets during Festival de la Musique, listening to terrible bands playing on street corners and getting drunk off bottles of red wine we clutched at the neck; there was the night we went as a group to a bar down a side street off of another side street where the bartender was a ninety-year-old woman who served bottles of one variety of beer and reserved most of her bar for sleeping birds and a fat cat leashed to the front door; there was the night we tried and failed to put on a reading of The Importance of Being Earnest. The tumbleweeds were all the same breed: young and eager, imaginative, strange, and kind. We all understood how lucky we were to be staying at the shop, and how singular those weeks would be. We did our collective best to make the most of them.
These tumbleweed biographies collected in this book are one facet of the “box of treasures,” offering a window into the store, through the eyes of those who have slept on its concrete floor. Helen Martin stayed at Shakespeare with her husband in 1951, right at the beginning, and made stew with George “right over the books.” Linda V. Williams was enlisted by Whitman to mind the store in the midst of the student revolution, only to find herself in charge of two Scandinavian girls being chased by the gendarmes. The 25-year-old Amanda Lewis stayed at the shop until the end of 2002: “I stayed exactly a month and slept in the children’s section surrounded by picture books and went to the soup kitchen and walked around looking at churches and drank red wine in the library and fell asleep at night in the middle of paragraphs and was so, so content.”
By the time I stayed there, Sylvia had taken over management of the shop. She and her then-fiancé, David, pushed me repeatedly to write my biography as my time at the store neared its end. I kept putting it off. I didn’t know what I could possibly say. I didn’t have a photograph to include, which was required, so a friend, Brit, and I ran off to Palais de Tokyo, where they had a photobooth. We each did an individual set, and then we did one together, vogueing behind editions of Bluets and Invisible Cities that we’d borrowed from the store.
It was my final day in the shop. I’d made plans with friends to drink wine and eat cheese on the Seine after the store closed down, but before I could do that, I had to fulfill my one last requirement as a tumbleweed. Back on the third floor and faced with a wall of binders filled with tumbleweed biographies, I sat down at the computer. I told a version of my story, as I’d been taught to do by the versions of the store’s story I’d heard while I was there.
Now my biography is one of the dozens included in A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Near the end, close to the present tense, a page is darkened with my typing, my solo photobooth mugs angled across the page. Kelsey Ford, aged 22, stayed at Shakespeare & Co between May 31 and June 24, 2011.
As George said, “All the characters in this bookstore are fictitious, so please leave your everyday self outside the door.” Shakespeare & Co is a store that houses stories. To become one of them is a small, special thing.
Image credit: Brit Bachmann