16th January 2012 - Emily Best
For those unfamilar with it, Shakespeare and Company is a bookshop, as well known for its English-language titles as its French, on Paris' Left Bank that has also been the haunt of generations of writers. It's as much a part of Parisian literary history as Foyles is of London's and there have been countless booksellers who've worked both there and here. A number of Foyles staff, past and present, attended the funeral last month of George Whitman, the bookshop's legendary proprietor.
George's legacy is a bookshop that has become a site of pilgrimage for writers and readers throughout the world. Like many who come to Paris - to live, to work , to study - Emily Best found that it was a place that was to define her time there.
The truth is I only met George Whitman once. When I say met him, I mean I was in the same room as him: in the little library above the shop where I would go every Tuesday for creative writing classes. He came into the room and Anna (the teacher) said hello to him. He looked at her, and at us, nodded and left the room through the door to his apartment. I never saw him again.
I know that George meant a lot of things to a lot people - those to whom he offered space and hospitality. They have stories that I could not begin to tell: I was never a part of the Shakespeare & Co world, but it was a part of mine. I went to Paris ostensibly to study, and my classroom was just around the corner from the bookshop. I stole every opportunity to be there, browsing the second-hand trolleys outside and the newer volumes within, trying to befriend Colette the dog and reading in the library. Although I never lived there, this little bookshop was the centre of everything I wanted from Paris. The trouble was I wanted it from a distance.
I don't know if anyone else has experienced this but I have this problem - when I love something, I keep it at arm's length. I get scared that if I become too involved, my perspective will change and I won't love it as much. That's what happened in Paris - I loved the idea of it, of being there, so much that I had to keep myself separate. I never read A Moveable Feast and the first film I saw in a French cinema was Ealing classic The Titfield Thunderbolt . I drank coffee in popular American coffee chains more than I care to remember. Okay, I was a little homesick but mostly I was terrified of abandoning myself to a world that, in my head, was so perfect and beautiful, I could never come up to scratch.
The funny thing was, though, although the Shakespeare & Co world was out of my reach it was still the cornerstone of my Parisian existence. You didn't need to be a part of it for it to be a part of you. On Mondays, they had - and still have - readings from authors and poets. Amongst the highlights were Mark Ford and Maggie Gee, both of whom I was lucky enough to meet. My Tuesday night creative writing class was the most incredible mix of people who, like me, existed outside of the Shakespeare & Co life but were in Paris to create something similar for themselves.
More specifically, the bookshop started what was to become my primary occupation in Paris - walking. I was in George's little reading room above the shop one day when I picked up Edmund White's The Flâneur and fell in love with the idea of meandering purposelessly through the streets of a remarkably navigable city. My map stayed firmly in my pocket from that point on. Wherever I went, though, the little bookshop remained a constant. Throughout my five months in the city, this little haven for dreamers was a reminder of what it was I wanted from my peculiar dream. I never lived it like others did, so it was always perfect, unchanging.
During the Paris Literary Festival, I visited another anglophone bookshop: The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, a little north, in the Marais district. Here I heard Thad Carhart read from his book The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. Carhart recounts his friendship with a Parisian piano repairer and the secret little world of the atelier that he found himself a part of. At the reading he said that people have often asked him for the address of this atelier - he always refuses, telling people that they can't have his adventure; that they must find their own. That's kind of how I feel about Shakespeare & Co - it's not an experience that can be fabricated, and I was never going to be one of those people that lived there and had that adventure. But the place, the people and the dream incarnate gave me the means to create my own adventures.
A little while ago, my laptop was stolen, and along with it everything I wrote in Paris (no, I don't back up and shut up about it). At first I was upset but I came to realise that it didn't really matter - what I wrote in those months was a reflection of my time there. That hasn't changed - nothing has really changed and my experience hasn't gone anywhere, and the words will still be there somewhere. So much of that is thanks to George Whitman and his bookshop. George's death is a great loss to the literary world and beyond, and I've no doubt he will be very sorely missed by generations after generations of dreamers, writers and tumbleweeds. But the spirit of hospitality, creativity and adventure that his shop embodied will carry on, and I've no doubt that the words aren't going anywhere.
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