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Bookshops of the World

Shakespeare & Company Paris- Most photographed bookstore in the world!
A Brief History of a Parisian Bookstore
"I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations." —George Whitman
I just love George Whitman's definition of how he came to "create" this bookstore, it conjures an immediate imagination of your own, one where you can see rooms filled with favorite genre's, favorite all-time classics just waiting for your presence, to spot them silently awaiting your perusal, your excitement in meeting them, in stepping through into a universe of it's very own - and how wonderful does that feel.

Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookshop located in the heart of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, opposite Notre-Dame. Since opening in 1951, it’s been a meeting place for English speaking writers and readers, becoming a Left Bank literary institution.

The bookshop was founded by American George Whitman at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Kilometer Zero, the point at which all French roads begin. Constructed in the early 17th century, the building was originally a monastery.

When the store first opened, it was called Le Mistral. George changed it to the present name in April 1964—on the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth—in honor of a bookseller he admired, Sylvia Beach, who’d founded the original Shakespeare and Company in 1919. Her store at 12 rue de l’Odéon was a gathering place for the great expat writers of the time—Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound—as well as for leading French writers.

From the first day the store opened, writers, artists, and intellectuals were invited to sleep among the shop’s shelves and piles of books, on small beds that doubled as benches during the day. Since then, an estimated 30,000 young and young-at-heart writers and artists have stayed in the bookshop, including then unknowns such as Alan Sillitoe, Robert Stone, Kate Grenville, Sebastian Barry, Ethan Hawke, Jeet Thayil, Darren Aronfsky, Stephen Rea, David Rakoff, and Linda Grant. These guests are called Tumbleweeds after the rolling thistles that “drift in and out with the winds of chance,” as George described. A sense of community and commune was very important to him—he referred to his shop as a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”


Three things are asked of each Tumbleweed: read a book a day, help at the shop for a few hours a day, and produce a one-page autobiography. Thousands and thousands of these autobiographies have been collected and now form an impressive archive, capturing generations of writers, travelers, and dreamers who have left behind pieces of their stories.

In 2002, at the age of twenty-one, Sylvia Whitman, George’s only child, returned to Shakespeare and Company to spend time with her father, then eighty-eight years old, in his kingdom of books. In 2006, George officially put Sylvia in charge. On the shutters outside the store, he wrote: “Each monastery had a frère lampier whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I have been doing this for fifty years. Now it is my daughter’s turn.”

Sylvia introduced several new literary endeavors. In June 2003, Shakespeare and Company hosted its first literary festival, followed by three others. Participants over the years have included Paul Auster, Will Self, Marjane Satrapi, Jung Chang, Philip Pullman, Hanif Kureishi, Siri Hustvedt, Martin Amis, and Alistair Horne, among many others.

In 2011, with the de Groot Foundation, Shakespeare and Company launched the Paris Literary Prize, a novella contest open to unpublished writers from around the world. In recent years, the bookstore’s had cameo appearances in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Shakespeare and Company also continues to host at least one free literary event a week, and has been delighted to welcome young and emerging writers along with today’s leading authors.

The shop’s latest projects include a Shakespeare and Company publishing arm and an ongoing search for a farm and writers’ retreat in the countryside around Paris.

Although George Whitman passed away on December 14, 2011—two days after his 98th birthday—his novel, this bookshop, is still being written, both by Sylvia and by the thousands of people who continue to read, write, and sleep at Shakespeare and Company.

If I ever visit Paris, this will be a must visit on my bucket-list of places to see before I die.

Notes shared in this post have been resourced from Shakespeare and Co's website titled "History."

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