Home Bookshops The Bibliophile’s Cathedral: Shakespeare and Co, Paris

The Bibliophile’s Cathedral: Shakespeare and Co, Paris

by John Maguire
Share 10mh on Social Media

Here at ten minutes hate we love a good bookshop. John Maguire writes the first in a soon-to-be-series of our favourites.

The City of Light, Paris has long been a somewhat creative Bermuda triangle, poets, writers  and artists, all navigate towards this Metropolis. Some disappear into their own egos whilst others emerge from the experience with robust pieces of artistic endeavour.

The Catholics have their Vatican and shrines such as Lourdes, the Pagans have Stonehenge, the Muslims, Mecca, while bibliophiles have Shakespeare and Co in Paris. Every chattel of literature will head towards this celebrated book store. Situated in the shadow of the Gothic Notre Dame, it comprises two buildings on Paris’ Left Bank.

The original venture was begun by Sylvia Beach in the Rue de L’Odeon in 1922. The establishment has been associated with writers such as Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller, to name a few.  Having a lasting impression on the creative, Paris has an intoxicating effect on all its visitors,

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

– Ernest Hemingway

Beach closed the store down in World War Two and urban myth suggests it was closed due to her refusal to give a German Officer the last copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.  Joyce was known to call the store, ‘Stratford on Odeon’.

The bookstore also acted as a library and it was here that readers could gain access to all kinds of literature, including the then UK-banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Shakespeare and Co, Paris

However, the spirit of this cultural haven is now continued in a new location. George Whitman opened his book store Le Mistral on the site of a 16th Century Monastery. It soon became a literary rabbit hole and attracted the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. The proprietor renamed the store Shakespeare and Co when Sylvia Beach passed away in 1964, as a tribute to this legend of literature.


Aspiring writers are permitted to stay in beds amongst the books upstairs in return for work. One resident James Mercer even penned a book about his experience, ‘Time Was Soft There – A Paris sojourn at Shakespeare and Co’, a depiction of subculture Parisian life. Whitman claimed that over 40,000 people had slept over through the years.

The eccentric figure died in December 2011, passing the lantern light on to his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, clearly the energy and passion for the printed page is embedded in her. She has established a biennial literary festival,  FestivalandCo,  where such writers as Jeanette Winterson and Paul Auster have come to show their respects. The store has also featured as a backdrop in the art-house film, Before Sunset (Richard Linklater) and Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen).

Inside books grow from every part of the rooms, creeping paper roots trail through the floorboards. Mountains of volumes clamour up the walls, taking over any available space. Bricks and mortar crammed with literary thought, a building seeping with pure knowledge.

Some of the aged books appear to have bloomed new blossom, in the shape of the shiny new volumes on sale. It is indeed a book aficionado’s Utopia. A magical site, an interchange between the past and present, distant voices amplified. Here the reader can in fact commune with the minds of ancestry, sparks of ideas live on, helping to resolve problems, stave off loneliness, to comfort, to aid. The books serve to help unlock potential and provide inoculation from the enemy of the human spirit, procrastination.

If in Paris, book lovers must pop in and leaf through the shelves, soak in the fresh smell of paper on a par with any mountain air. It would indeed be a literary sin not to visit and if you do not, it will be a case that you will have to read ten Spike Milligan poems, four Charles Bukowskis and three Lorcas, solely as penance.

Paris Wall Newspaper, Shakespeare and Co

Bookstore pictures, author’s own. Picture of George Whitman from Sense & Sensibility

Share 10mh on Social Media

Related Articles


markwoff 25 October 2013 - 3:03 pm

As I read this, holiday afternoon idling, we have a compilation CD called ‘Cafe Parisien’ on, specifically ‘Un Gamin de Paris’ by Yves Montand. Beau texte!

jasperproject 7 November 2013 - 7:38 pm

Bookstores are holy places.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.