Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart – Shakespeare & Company, Paris

I have now been home from Paris about one and a half weeks. Paris never lasts long enough, does it?!

I thought that by bringing a great nugget of Paris home with me, I would somehow prolong my visit…if only in my head and in my heart. But like being given your favourite treats and attempting to make them last, I have now devoured the last of that great nugget I carried back across the pond with me.

The nugget of which I speak? A book. A tome I thought would last a little longer. A tome I devoured all too quickly!

Shakespeare & Company Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. This is going down as THE most magical book I ever read. Read isn’t even right…it doesn’t cover what I did. I fell into this book. I immersed myself in this book. So divine, it was!

To think, Michael practically had to twist my arm to get me to buy it during my first visit to the iconically beautiful madhouse of books of love, Shakespeare & Company Bookstore at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, Paris. I hemmed and I hawed. The price would put it somewhere in the vicinity of extravagant as a self-purchase and I really rung my hands over it. Should I? Shouldn’t I? In the end, Michael prevailed. He talked me into purchasing the thing I MOST wanted to purchase in all the store.

I HAVE NO REGRETS. Such a beautiful rambling read through the history of my favourite international bookstore, which also, itself, has a tendency to ramble through space and time.

George Whitman was a formidable presence in the universe. I believed that before opening the book, and I know it now. He was a magician with a gravitational pull that rivaled the universe itself. He was the moon, orchestrating the tides of ‘Tumbleweeds’ in and out of his magical bookstore for decades.

I’ve loved Shakespeare & Company since I first learned about its first incarnation, created by Sylvia Beach and found at 12 rue de l’Odéon. George Whitman was the perfect successor of the name (Whitman changed the name of the current day Shakespeare & Company from Le Mistral in 1964). He carried with him the same kind of generosity of heart and spirit as his predecessor.

Here’s the description of the book from Amazon:

A copiously illustrated account of the famed Paris bookstore on its 65th anniversary

This first-ever history of the legendary bohemian bookstore in Paris interweaves essays and poetry from dozens of writers associated with the shop–Allen Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin, Ethan Hawke, Robert Stone and Jeanette Winterson, among others–with hundreds of never-before-seen archival pieces, including photographs of James Baldwin, William Burroughs and Langston Hughes, plus a foreword by the celebrated British novelist Jeanette Winterson and an epilogue by Sylvia Whitman, the daughter of the store’s founder, George Whitman. The book has been edited by Krista Halverson, director of the newly founded Shakespeare and Company publishing house.

George Whitman opened his bookstore in a tumbledown 16th-century building just across the Seine from Notre-Dame in 1951, a decade after the original Shakespeare and Company had closed. Run by Sylvia Beach, it had been the meeting place for the Lost Generation and the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (This book includes an illustrated adaptation of Beach’s memoir.) Since Whitman picked up the mantle, Shakespeare and Company has served as a home-away-from-home for many celebrated writers, from Jorge Luis Borges to Ray Bradbury, A.M. Homes to Dave Eggers, as well as for young authors and poets. Visitors are invited not only to read the books in the library and to share a pot of tea, but sometimes also to live in the bookstore itself–all for free.

More than 30,000 people have stayed at Shakespeare and Company, fulfilling Whitman’s vision of a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.” Through the prism of the shop’s history, the book traces the lives of literary expats in Paris from 1951 to the present, touching on the Beat Generation, civil rights, May ’68 and the feminist movement–all while pondering that perennial literary question, “What is it about writers and Paris?”

If you want to read an extraordinary moving history of one of the world’s most astonishing bookstores, you need to have this book in your life. It would also make a fantastic present for the literary lover in your life. I know I’m going to cherish my copy forever. Now that I’ve read it, I know with certainty that is a book that will give me much joy in future re-readings. I could not put it down. Wandering through its pages felt much the same as wandering through the crooked little rooms and alcoves and mystery spaces splattered with books and things inside Shakespeare & Company itself.

You can purchase this wild ride through history directly through the Shakespeare & Co Online Bookstore!!

By Kevin Craig

Author, Poet, Playwright

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