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The Rag and Bone Shop

Over winter break, I found myself reminiscing about interesting travel spots, and places I hope to explore in 2012. New year, new [travel] me.

While I will (sadly) not be participating in the law school’s study abroad trip to Mexico this summer, I’m certainly envious. For two weeks in May, students will have the opportunity to  study comparative and international law in Guanajuato, Mexico, while visiting Mexican legal institutions and taking classes at the University of Guanajuato and other locations around the city.

Reading the  blog from the 2010 trip didn’t help me focus on second semester assignments, but rather, pushed me further down memory lane, to one of my favorite Parisian jewels: Shakespeare & Company.


"I wanted a bookstore because the book business is the business of life"

December 2011 marked the  death of George Whitman, a man who took a very simple idea and manifested it into the legendary little bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris, Shakespeare & Company. In my introductory post I promised to highlight some of my favorite places, and the “rag and bone shop” of literary Paris certainly makes that list. While George Whitman wasn’t a mountaineer, or law graduate, his joie de vivre certainly deserves recognition.

Born in East Orange, New Jersey, Mr. Whitman was only 38 years old when he opened the bookstore in 1951 at 37 rue de la Bûcherie. He originally opened it under the name of “Le Mistral”, but later changed it to Shakespeare & Company, with the permission of Sylvia Beach, another American expatriate bookseller who had been operating a different librarie with the same name. George allowed down-on-their-luck writers, poets, and artists to spend the night in the store, in exchange for a poetry reading, or for help with sorting books. His “take what you need” mantra instilled a sense of belonging and good will, which still resonates there today.

While his store is a haven for those who were trying to make a name for themselves, it also drew quite an illustrious crowd: the  New York Times called its visitors list a type of “Who’s Who of American, English, French and Latin American literature: Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett and James Baldwin were frequent callers in the early days; other regulars included Lawrence Durrell and the Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, all of them Mr. Whitman’s friends.”

Shakespeare & Company.

I was thirteen years old the first time I ever visited the humble building, overlooking Notre Dame de Paris, nestled between two tourist filled cafes. My mother, who had lived in Paris in her twenties as an au pair to a Swedish super-model, insisted that I go with her. Walking up the sidewalk, I remember not being too impressed, and whining about something I would have rather been doing. “Just a few minutes”, she reassured me. Once we entered, however, I was entranced. Hundreds of books lined the shelves; new and used, in French and English, spanning the centuries. The first floor hosts a piano, and a few cozy corners that require some gymnast like skill to maneuver. Compared to the Barnes and Nobles and Books-a-Million I was accustomed to, this wasn’t a bookstore, it was a labyrinth.

BooksThere was no cliché elevator jazz playing, no wide aisles to accommodate larger hips, no neatly printed sign directing you to the “Self-Help” section. You really needed both hands to make sure you made it up the stairway in one piece. I was hooked.
I spent the next few hours exploring all the nooks and crannies, browsing for French versions of my favorite books, and listening to a poetry reading downstairs. Mom and I found a yellowed love letter tucked in between a shelf, dated from 1965. On the second floor, we discovered the little cot and teapot, almost underneath the welcoming refrain, “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”

Since that initial visit years ago, I have found myself back on rue de la Bûcherie every time I am in Paris. While I am by no means a writer, I still feel completely at home there. Shakespeare & Company lacks the snobbery that other bookstores oft permeate- you are welcome whether you prefer James Joyce or Anne Rice. I always leave happy, and with a new idea, or two.

So, if you are planning a trip to the City of Light, make sure you add this to your itinerary. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

[ If you’re interested: excerpt of documentary  Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man, by Gonzague Pichelin and Benjamin Sutherland, on The Sundance Channel (Fall 2005) ]


“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.” 
― George Whitman

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