Jul/Aug 2000 Nonfiction

Shakespeare. And Company

by Kevin McGowin

So while in Paris I made the obligatory visit to Shakespeare & Co., the famous bookstore and refuge of would-be expatriate Americans now located at 37 rue de la Bucherie on the Left Bank of the Seine facing Notre Dame. About twenty people were outside taking pictures of the sign and storefront window at any given time. It used to be located at 12 rue de l'Odeon, and THAT was the place immortalized by Hemingway in A MOVEABLE FEAST and, one guesses, the one Henry Miller is said to have called "A Wonderland of Books" although this is printed on the postcards they sell from the new place for three francs each and is also written on the storefront window below the sign which also indicates that Shake & Co. now has branches in Berkeley, New York, Seattle, etc., Lisbon (God knows why THERE) and, well, Hem was really into it because the owner, Sylvia Beach, lent him books on credit and more or less let him use it as a library, and now it prides itself on being a refuge where Americans can stay: "We wish our guests to enter with the feeling they have inherited a booklined apartment on the Seine which is all the more delightful because they share it with others," the card reads.

It's now run by an old guy named George, who is mentioned in tones of affection bordering on veneration. He has a daughter named Sylvia Beach. I still can't figure out what the deal with THAT is, as I'm told she didn't change her name but yet is not some direct descendent of the woman Hemingway wrote about circa 1922, nor IS she that woman, either, and I'm writing this in April, 2000, and nobody knows where she is and nobody gives you a straight answer because they don't know, either, so whatever, man.

The place is a real dive. I was about to use a different, more direct word which loosely speaking means "outhouse," but I just read the chapter in A MOVEABLE FEAST where Gertrude Stein chides Hemingway for his "silly" use of "inaccrochable" language in his work, so I'll resist. Perhaps I'm not being fair to a real landmark, here, but I might be more kindly disposed to overlook the seven flea-ridden cots in there and all the clutter and filth were the place not filled with alcoholic poseurs with condescending attitudes or French chicks like the one who ordered me (and that's the word for it, too) not to sit on a particular ledge while reading and to leave my backpack with her after I'd already been in there looking for a copy of Villon they didn't have for an hour at my second visit.

So I did as she directed and, walking back toward the shelf I'd been looking through, took a turn to the right sliding by some German and then some Japanese tourists like someone on a rush-hour New York subway and into the section where they had these small yellow copies of the FEAST, and without even looking both ways I moved one right down the front of my pants and into my underwear to give to a Lady Friend. And, taking my backpack from the Beach at the counter, I moved that inaccrochable thing RIGHT OUT of the damn place, to which I do not plan to return on my next visit to the city--after all, I've got the book, I'm proud of myself, and damned if Ernest wouldn't have done the same damn thing.

And the people there?

Well, I'm sure they can, and DO, produce work on a regular basis that makes Hem, Pound, Miller and F. Scott together look like Danielle Steele, and I know James Joyce could kick me in the ass and I wouldn't look twice. Or, to name a much better writer, Shakespeare. Though I haven't read it, I know the work of these fine people make his Complete Works resemble a heaping load of inaccrochability on the cobbled streets of the rue de la Bucherie or the rue de l'Odeon for that matter, or at the very least they make themselves his peer. And that's fine--that's cool, I mean it! And I like some of Shake, I really do. I guess I just don't care for his company.

Paris, 4/22/00
Olivetti Lettera 32


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