Places to See: Shakespeare and Company Then and Now

When walking into Shakespeare and Company for the first time, I was enthralled by the amount of books that surrounded me. They crammed every space available—every crack and crevice. A few of the bookshelves had ladders while others arched over reading chairs; one of the shelves was diagonally placed alongside the staircase as if the shop had reached maximum capacity. The piles of books along with the preserved quaintness of Shakespeare and Company embodied Hemingway’s description of it in A Moveable Feast, making my visit an enjoyable experience. However, I couldn’t help but notice that certain aspects of the contemporary bookstore contrasted the original owned by Sylvia Beach.

Hemingway referred to Shakespeare and Company as a library as well as a book store. Despite the fee of the rental club, Hemingway recalls Beach lending him books without any guarantee that he would compensate her or return them. The same sentiment does not appear to hold true today. When I wandered through the stacks and approached the back of the store, I was taken aback by the wooden divider that separated me from the staff. One employee sat in front of a computer with a sign that read, “credit cards only.” It was at that moment that I began to feel as though Shakespeare and Company has become somewhat commercialized over the years, using its notoriety to turn a profit.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes Sylvia Beach as friendly and welcoming, relaying their conversation to the reader. The current staff at Shakespeare and Co. is not necessarily unfriendly; they showed enthusiasm when costumers purchased books at the registers, but as visitors meandered through the aisles, the employees did not attempt to engage in conversations with them, walking by in a hurry and avoiding eye contact with the customers.

This updated version of Shakespeare and Company encourages visitors to read books within the store free of charge, resembling the idea of a library that Hemingway described. However, unlike Sylvia Beach’s establishment, visitors can no longer take books home with them for a limited time. This may be due to the tourism associated with Shakespeare and Co. Because travelers often visit the popular site, there is a possibility that these lent books may find their way to another country—never to return, resulting in the bookstore having to pay for the overall cost. Because costumers feel compelled to leave Shakespeare and Company with a book in hand, they are more likely to make a purchase, contrasting Beach’s idea of a rental bookstore.

Although I came across a few unique texts, including a book that discussed dog-eared poetry, I was familiar with the majority of books that I found. Even the literary classics had similar covers to what I had seen at home. The only factor that set a Shakespeare and Co. book apart from others was the official stamp provided by the store, a seal confirming a customer’s visit to this renowned destination. For book lovers, it is a memento—proof of their affection, which makes the stamp an effective marketing strategy. Rather than buying the book at home, tourists prefer to carry the brand name in their luggage, viewing it as a souvenir.

Although Shakespeare and Company has become a bit more profit driven over the years, those who run the bookstore still exhibit a fondness for creative writers and consumers of literature, hosting workshops and book club meetings. A sense of community still exists here, and because of this, writers are encouraged to recognize their own potential. While climbing up the staircase of Shakespeare and Company, visitors will encounter a word on each ascending step. The stacked words compile into a quote by Hafiz of Shiraz that reads, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” Regardless of the changes made to Shakespeare and Company over the years, its original essence lingers which is why I still recommend that tourists, writers, and lovers of literature stop by to get a taste of the literary scene in Paris.


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