Virus-Hit Paris Bookshop Shakespeare & Co Appeals for Help

November 6, 2020

PARIS — Shakespeare and Company, the iconic Paris bookstore that published James Joyce's "Ulysses" in 1922, is appealing to readers for support after pandemic-linked losses and France's spring coronavirus lockdown put the future of the Left Bank institution in doubt.

The English-language bookshop on the Seine River sent an email to customers last week to inform them that it was facing "hard times" and to encourage them to buy a book. Paris entered a fresh lockdown on Oct. 30 that saw all non-essential stores shuttered for the second time in seven months. 

"We've been (down) 80% since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the late proprietor George Whitman, said. 

Since sending the email appeal, Whitman says she has been "overwhelmed" by the offers of help Shakespeare and Company has received. There have been a record 5,000 online orders in one week, compared with around 100 in a normal week — representing a 50-fold increase. 

Support has come from all walks of life: from lowly students to former French President Francois Hollande, who dropped by the bookshop overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral before the lockdown in response to the appeal. 

Many Parisians contacted Whitman to donate to the bookshop — without wishing to purchase a book — and to share memories of falling in love there or even sleeping among its bookshelves. 

"(My father) let people sleep in the bookshop and called them 'tumbleweeds.' We've had 30,000 people sleep in the bookshop," Whitman said, adding that it was one way the shop founders encouraged writers to be creative. Indeed, the motto on the shop wall reads: "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise." 

The outpouring of loyalty is perhaps unsurprising for the place often described as the world's most famous independent bookshop. Founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919, Shakespeare & Company became a creative hub for expatriate writers including Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. 

Reflecting on Beach's decision to publish "Ulysses," Joyce's groundbreaking novel of more than 700 pages, Whitman said: "No one else dared publish it in full…She became one of the smallest publishers of one of the biggest books of the century." 

Joyce used to call Beach's bookstore "Stratford-upon-Odeon," merging the shop's street address with Shakespeare's birthplace. The Irish writer would use it as an office.

"They all used her bookshop as a sanctuary," Whitman said.

During World War II, as the shop's story goes, Beach closed Shakespeare and Company in 1941 after refusing to sell her last copy of Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" to a German Nazi officer. The bookstore reopened in a different guise in 1951, with a new address and owner — George Whitman. The rest is history.

Since last week's email appeal, it's not only Whitman's daughter who has been overwhelmed. Shakespeare and Company's website, run by a small team, has been overloaded with book orders and donations.

Sylvia Whitman looked to the past for a solution to her new problem. 

Inspired by how the bookshop weathered the worldwide financial fallout from the Wall Street crash of 1929, she has set up a Friends of Shakespeare and Company fund with a website link that supporters can click to send donations. 

"It is inspired by Sylvia Beach during the Great Depression, who had a difficult time, obviously. A lot of expats had to leave Paris, as it was too expensive, so she and her friends set up a Friends of Shakespeare and Company," Whitman said.

While the bookshop is a Paris institution, Whitman still maintains her eccentric and down-to-earth spirit that she seems to have inherited from her late father, George. 

At several points in an interview with The Associated Press, Shakespeare and Company's resident dog, named Colette, interrupted with barking. Whitman said it was because Colette had a strong opinion on certain matters. 

Shakespeare and Company's financial troubles didn't begin with the coronavirus pandemic. Paris in recent years has been a theater of calamities that caused lasting problems for small shops and businesses that rely on out-of-town visitors — from terrorist attacks and anti-government protests to the devastating April 2019 fire that closed Notre Dame Cathedral.

Like many independent stores, competition from online retailer Amazon has also cooled commerce, although Shakespeare and Company has been shielded more than most booksellers by its fame.


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