— William Shakespeare, Cymbeline
Being the American expat in France for most of my friends back home brings with it a certain cachet … and certain responsibilities. When someone is planning a Paris vacation, I’m usually the first person my friends think of to ask for advice about restaurants, hotels, and neighborhoods. I love this role; it’s a bit like being an ambassador, or — more appropriately, I suppose — a scout for an advancing foraging party! Sometimes, though, it gets more interesting than simply giving my expert advice about this city; sometimes I actually go on a mission for someone …
A few weeks ago, an intriguing message popped into my Facebook inbox. It was from Kara, a classmate from my first phonetics class here, and she desperately needed my help. She was participating in a global scavenger hunt, and one of the items on the list required a photo that only I could get for her.
“A bookstore on the Left Bank declares ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.’ Stand in front of this Parisian landmark dressed as an angel holding up a sign saying, ‘Don’t touch me.'”
“Well, of course I can help you,” I quickly responded. “Do you know which bookstore? I imagine it’s that Shakespeare/English bookstore just across from Notre Dame,” I wrote, thinking of the famous English-language bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, that I’d passed countless times on my way to class. We both did a quick Google search, and sure enough, this paraphrased passage from the Bible appears on a wall in that bookstore. I dug out my feathery halo from an old costume I’d worn to a friend’s birthday party a few years ago, located Michel‘s slate-gray trenchcoat, and printed the “Don’t touch me” sign. The following Friday afternoon, I packed it all into a messenger bag and dragged Michel down to the Latin Quarter to help me complete my mission.
When we arrived at Shakespeare & Company, the place was packed with as many customers as books, so locating the quotation threatened to be more problematic than I’d expected. I stumbled across a salesperson and decided to cut to the chase: “Excuse me, I’m looking for a quotation about angels in disguise.” “Oh yes, that’s on the second floor at the top of the stairs,” she replied in an English accent. “Can I take a photo? I noticed the ‘no photo’ sign outside.” “Well,” she looked at me slightly askance, “you’re not supposed to … but …” “Thanks!” I retorted quickly and, locating Michel, bounded up the stairs to our destination. That’s when I pulled off my coat, donned the trenchcoat and halo, and posed for Michel:
What I didn’t know at the time was the interesting backstory of this bookstore.
Shakespeare & Company has been an anglophone literary haven in Paris’s Latin Quarter for more than 60 years. It was founded in 1951 by American George Whitman, who had decided to stay Paris after serving in the Second World War. After studying at the Sorbonne to improve his French, Whitman opened this English-language bookstore in the neighborhood, using his own collection of books amassed during his first years in Paris. Initially, Shakespeare & Company served not only as a bookstore, but as a kind of literary commune, where Whitman often provided room and board to aspiring writers, lodging them in makeshift beds in the store’s alcoves for days, weeks, or even months. Whitman’s communitarian philosophy was reflected on a sign posted next to a “wishing well” in the store: “Give what you can, take what you need. George.”
It is estimated that Whitman hosted some 50,000 such vagabonds de plume over the years. Shakespeare & Company quickly became an institution in Paris, counting among its many visitors such legends as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, Lawrence Durrell, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. Whitman’s friend and beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had initially encouraged Whitman to open the bookstore, later went on to found a similarly bohemian landmark in San Francisco (coincidentally one of my favorite spots in that city): City Lights Books.
George Whitman passed away just last year, two days after his 98th birthday, at home in an apartment above his celebrated store. Completing this mission for Kara’s team was quirky fun, but it seems that when I donned that halo, I was also paying homage to a dearly departed “light in a dull and homogenised world” without even knowing it.
“Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Rest in Peace, George Whitman
Shakespeare & Company is located at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in the 5th arrondissement, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. The store is open every day from 10 am to 11 pm, except weekends when it opens at 11 am.
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all right reserved