Solace in Shakespeare (and Company)

Paris is a puzzling paradise of plaques and…Parisians. Obviously you find Parisians in Paris, but I keep forgetting how unprepared I was to not hear English on a daily basis. I’m absolutely enthralled, but I also find myself silenced. I don’t want to stand out. I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to myself. In this past week of hustle and bustle and delving into a different culture entirely I find one steadfast solace:

Shakespeare and Company. 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris.

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The land of literature and love. When you step into those doors the quiet murmur of book buyers and English enthusiasts surrounds you. A calm from the immediate tourist trap across the street at Notre Dame. (Pro tip: if you plan on visiting, stay away from Notre Dame on the weekends. It’s beautiful, but it’s a tourist trap. A very dangerous trap.) Shakespeare and Company on the other hand, while touristy, is not a trap at all. It’s an English major’s dream and a treasure trove of history that’s still alive with the literary scene of today. With the café on the corner, an antique bookseller in the middle, and the main store to the right you never want to leave. The stairs leading to their second floor even offer a comforting quote painted on each step:

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. –Hafiz”

(You’re not “allowed” to take pictures inside the store, hence why there’s no photo to accompany this.)

I repeatedly say that any free time I have outside of class will be dedicated to the comfy brown leather chair right next to Aggie the cat in the piano room upstairs. My first experience stems from that room.

With my first visit only lasting an hour and forty-five minutes I spend a majority of it upstairs in The Cave listening to an old woman play the sheet music she’s brought in a battered plastic sheet protector. Simplistic versions of Oh Christmas Tree, My Country Tis of Thee, Silent Night, and various others copied from what seems to be hymn books and children’s lesson books. In front of me a woman asks if her daughter can play. The woman obliges and smiles sweetly as the child plays Moonlight Sonata from memory.

“Oh it’s all in her head? That’s so wonderful.”

“All the world’s a stage” as it were and another person steps up to play Bohemian Rhapsody, You Raise Me Up, La Vie En Rose, and various other songs. His hands skit-skat along the piano keys.

“If you sing it I can carry the melody underneath you. I just can’t read music well.”

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(Whoops, so I took a picture of one of the upstairs rooms. So sue me…No don’t actually do that to me Shakespeare and Company. I love you I swear. I just felt like a rebel.)

This is the first experience I have of Shakespeare and Company four days into the trip. Eight days into the trip I return for the third time with the rest of the class. I am even more enthralled as we line up at 6:15 for a Freeman’s Panel with three authors discussing “Literature Under Trump” and what that means. I sit in awe and anticipation tucked away from the stage as we listen to mic checks.

“Are we rejuvenated, revised…and ready to rock ‘n’ roll?”

If anything starts off with alliteration, it’ll be good in my opinion. The store is full and finally the three authors of the panel come downstairs to enlighten us all with their thoughts and opinions. I cannot describe the feeling so I’ll retreat to the 14 pages of quotes I feverishly jotted down for a summation of the night.

“American writing has no choice now, but to plant the seeds of revolution and rebellion.”

“We have to record what’s happened right now. We have to record the destruction and who did that.”

And a final, less pointed, quote from an audience member rather than a panel member:

“Expand what it is you think you can do in the world.”

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Shakespeare and Company is still the place to be when it comes to intellectual thinking and discussion. Everyone is welcome, English enthusiast, tourist, or someone just looking for a warm place to escape the ever present rain of a Parisian winter. Lend your own knowledge and borrow someone else’s for a while, just as Hemingway borrowed books from the lending library not so long ago.

Once in a lifetime experiences the likes of singing along to a New Zealander playing Bohemian Rhapsody in a tiny cramped piano room happen here. They may come out of nowhere and you may just waltz right into them, but there is no doubt that whether you try to experience one or not you will have a brilliant time at Shakespeare and Company. Especially if you find yourself in over your head and need a tiny break from the constant worry of doing or saying something wrong in Paris. Go get a flat white and a pesto bagel and gather the strength to take on the rest of Paris.

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