Shakespeare and Co., the English-language bookstore just across the Seine River from Notre Dame in Paris, is pretty much everything a bookstore should be. Housed in what was once a 17th-century monastery, it has winding hallways, narrow staircases, rabbit-warren rooms, pianos and typewriters for the plunking, hidy-holes for the hiding, couches and comfy chairs for the lounging (or the napping) and thousands of books — new, used, antiquarian and some for lending only.
It also has a long and colorful past, which has now been pulled together into a fat, appealing love letter/history/scrapbook, “Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart.”
Like the store, the book is packed almost beyond capacity with photographs (historic and contemporary), newspaper clippings, magazine articles, letters and notes, maps and diary entries. It is visually intriguing, with a lively mix of fonts and type faces, colorful pages, the occasional page of sideways text (usually poetry). And there, in the middle, is a mini-graphic novel.
It is great fun to dip into.
The text, edited by Minnesota native Krista Halverson, includes reminiscences from famous writers as well as from some of the Tumbleweeds, the name given to vagabonds, groupies and others who found their way to the shop and then stayed for days or weeks or months, sleeping on the couches or in the tiny rooms upstairs, helping out in the store. (There have been, at last count, more than 30,000 Tumbleweeds.)
The original Shakespeare and Co. was founded by Sylvia Beach, the expat American who became James Joyce’s publisher. Her store was a hangout for the writers of the Lost Generation — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein. It closed in 1941 during the German occupation, never to reopen.
The current Shakespeare and Co. was opened in 1951 by George Whitman, another American expat, who was as besotted by books as Beach was. He first called his shop Le Mistral but changed the name in 1961 at Beach’s urging.
Beach hung out there, and so did everyone else: Brendan Behan, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, James Baldwin, William Saroyan, Anais Nin, Robert Bly, Pablo Neruda, Doris Lessing.
Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” there, naked and drunk.
They are all here in this book, which moves forward through the decades tracing the evolution of the store. As the book progresses, it becomes less a history and more an homage to Whitman, who died in 2011 at age 98.
Writer and traveler Dervla Murphy recalls the first time she met Whitman: “From between cliffs of books, George emerged, a cat riding high on his shoulder.” Anais Nin recalls Whitman as “undernourished, bearded, a saint among his books.”
Irish poet Desmond O’Grady traveled to Paris in 1955 and found, at Shakespeare and Co., a copy of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which was still banned in Ireland. “The bookstore became the anchorage of my new life in Paris,” he wrote. “I sat and read there every day; I met my wife there. After I had gotten to know George a little, I asked him about his name. He told me he was a descendant of Walt Whitman. I believed him.”
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @StribBooks On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart
Edited by: Krista Halverson.
Publisher: Shakespeare and Co., 384 pages, 225 color plates, $34.95.