Alice and the Mad Hatter
Rory MacLean is one of those exceptionally talented travel writers who lives in England but has traveled widely across the Continent during his entire adult life. A few weeks ago he was in Paris to give a lecture at a writers conference, and then returned home to pen this remembrance of his time in Paris, and reveal some of the inner workings of Shakespeare and Co.
Newsletter No. 15
I'm just home from France. I was invited to Paris to give a reading at Shakespeare and Company, the tumbledown American bookshop on the Left Bank. I say 'at' Shakespeare and Company. 'Outside' would be more accurate. On rue de la Bucherie, surrounded by about sixty book lovers and bemused tourists, between the peels of Notre Dame's bells and the heckling of passing down-and-outs, I read aloud from Falling for Icarus.
Shakespeare and Company opened its doors in 1921. From here Europe first heard of new American writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and after the war Ginsberg and the Beats. Its owner Sylvia Beach published Joyce's Ulysses when no one else would take the risk. Fifty-five years ago George Whitman, an east coast vagabond-cum-bibliophile, bought this 'little rag-and-bone shop of the heart'. Since then, as well as selling millions of English-language books, he has given home to some 50,000 poets, novelists and students.
Over the last twenty years I've dropped by the shop dozens of times. But it wasn't until I started researching my new book Magic Bus and met George that I was invited to spend the night.
Every midnight after the shop closes, sleeping platforms fold down from behind the stacks. Beds are made up between the shelves. Twenty or thirty young or young-at-heart -- travellers tuck themselves in for the night. In return for their accommodation student residents are required to stand in for an hour or two behind the till. Writers and painters get to stay for free, their work cluttering the writers' cubicles and spare wall space.
George has put me up three or four times now, usually in a top floor bunk under a clothing rail, next to a filing cabinet stuffed with letters from Ezra Pound and Graham Greene. Ginsberg may have slept in the same bed, perhaps even under the same blanket. He certainly read from his work on the same esplanade outside the shop.
Henry Miller called Shakespeare and Company 'a wonderland of books'. Lawrence Durrell said it's 'a unique institution with an exceptional bookman at the helm'. Anais Nin wrote that Whitman 'created a house of gentle warmth with walls of books, tea ceremonies, a hearth of humour and friendship'. For me the value of this remarkable bookshop was summed up in the story of a young Scottish novelist who I met during my first sleep-over.
In 2003 Damien Macdonald was travelling around Europe 'desperate and scared, a disorientated cowboy without a horse'. He saw the shop, stopped in and within minutes Sylvia Whitman George's 24-year-old daughter invited him to stay. Damien told me, 'She gave me the keys and I came into this room. My room. I saw the mirror and saw myself reflected in it. At that moment I knew I had to pull myself together. So I sat down and started to write, with cockroaches running over my notebook..' He went on, 'Shakespeare and Company saved me. I found a place where I could write.'
On the wall of his bookshop George has painted the words, 'Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They be Angels in Disguise'. I feel privileged in having touched -- and been touched by -- a little of the history of the 'little rag-and-bone shop of the heart'.