One of the most well-known and beloved bookstores in Paris is the Shakespeare and Company, tucked away in the shadow of the Notre Dame in the 5th arrondissement. In operation since 1951, Shakespeare and Company is an independent store specialising in English language books. But inbetween the shelves, you might find something unexpected – beds, sheets and backpacks.
Shakespeare and Company was opened by George Whitman, an American expat living in Paris, and a self-proclaimed tumbleweed. After graduating from college, Whitman embarked on his ‘hobo adventures’, travelling across the US, Mexico and Central America by hitchhiking, train-hopping, and relying on the kindness of strangers to take him in. After serving in the US army in Greenland, Whitman eventually took a ship to Paris in 1946. He amassed a large private collection of books, and opened Shakespeare and Company in 1951.
The Tumbleweed Tradition
When Whitman was living in Paris, collecting books to eventually open his bookstore, he kept his apartment unlocked so anybody could come in and read, even when he wasn’t around. He applied this same thinking to his bookstore when it opened, inviting travelling writers, artists and poets to sleep in the bookstore if they needed a place to stay.
There was a request in exchange for board – guests were asked to read a book a day, help around the store, and write a one page autobiography for the archives. These guests were affectionately called tumbleweeds. On Sunday morning, Whitman cooked pancakes with homemade syrup for the Tumbleweeds.
The motto towards the Tumbleweeds was “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” Over the years, an estimated 30,000 Tumbleweeds passed through the cost of Shakespeare and Company. As the bookstore expanded over the decades, there were generally four Tumbleweeds living in the bookstore at any one time.
Whitman died in 2011, and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Running of the bookstore passed to his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman (who was named after Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the original Shakespeare and Company). And yes, Tumbleweeds are still sleeping in the bookstore to this day.
Many notable writers and artists have themselves passed through the free bunks and pancakes of Shakespeare and Company. Among the many distinguished Tumbleweeds are Allen Ginsberg, an American poet and writer (and friend of Jack Kerouac); Henry Miller, the author known for his works Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer; Anaïs Nin, a French-Cuban novelist and writer; and Ray Bradbury, an American science fiction, mystery and horror author.
But, you don’t need to be famous to stay at Shakespeare and Company, and you can certainly just wander in and browse any time. Shakespeare and Company is one of the best independent bookstore available in Paris, with a great emphasis on English language books. And with such a long and fascinating history, it’s certainly worth popping in to explore!