A colleague in work had to go to Paris for a conference recently and was asking for suggestions of things to do in her free time. I mentioned that she should visit Shakespeare & Co. which is across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral.
I visited Paris a few times on school trips, and remember seeing the books lined up on tables outside the shop. But being on a school trip, we were quickly bustled to the Cathedral and I never had a chance to go inside. I’ve been planning to save up for a weekend trip to Paris, to visit the store and see the sights, for a long time now.
Overhearing this, another colleague offered to lend me her copy of Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian writer who fled to Paris after receiving a death threat from a thief he’d upset by revealing his name in a true crime novel. Almost penniless he took refuge at Shakespeare & Company, then run by the remarkable George Whitman, who allowed writers, poets and artists to stay in his shop free of charge while they worked on their projects and got back on their feet. In a world obsessed with money, George managed to distance himself from the drive to acquire, using his cash to feed and home relative strangers. The maxim of his store being, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”
The book is a portrait of a remarkable bookshop, its remarkable inhabitants, but most of all of the remarkable man who ran it. A great read which really does make you think. I read sections of it aloud to my boyfriend (who hates being read to) and even he was interested in the philosophy of the shop. My favourite quote from the book (except the one that compares self publishing to using prostitutes in unfavourable terms):
“’People all tell me that they work too much, that they need to make more money,’ George told me. ‘What’s the point? Why not live on as little as possible and then spend your time with your family or reading Tolstoy or running a bookstore? It doesn’t make any sense.’” Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs Jeremy Mercer