If you were to see the piles of books in most rooms of my house (and my car!), you might assume that I suffer from “abibliophobia”! Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten better at finding storage for my books, organizing them by fiction, non-fiction, theme etc., but the “unread” books still remain stacked up everywhere! I get nervous if I’m almost finished a book and I don’t have another one ready to go.
I’ve never been tempted to read online or on kindle preferring to have a book in hand instead. Books are a great escape, taking us to places we’ve never been and probably will never go. Lately, I’ve become almost obsessive about historical fiction. It all started some years back with “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain. The book is about Ernest Hemingway, his first wife, Hadley, and their years in Paris in the 1920s. That started me on the journey to read everything about Hemingway, Hadley and his other two wives. Not being completely content, I wanted to know more… more about other the writers and artists in Paris at that time, their lives and dreams. As I said in an earlier post, F. Scott Fitzgerald is my favourite author and I consumed biographies of him and Zelda (his complex wife!!!) and the people in their social circle. I continued to move forward into the history of Paris during the occupation of WWII and on and on and on….. When I’m visiting Paris, it’s great fun to get a visual glimpse into the lives of these literary giants by retracing their footsteps, locating their homes, and enjoying a glass of wine in the cafes they frequented.
Some of the best bookstores are in Paris. Like cafes, flower and pastry shops, bookstores are sprinkled throughout every arrondissement. These are a few of my favourites:
The first “Shakespeare and Company” was opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, an American, who spent most of her adult life in Paris. The bookstore (and lending library) was originally located at 8 rue Dupuytren. Because of its popularity with both the French and Americans (“The Lost Generation”) in Paris during the years between the great wars, she had to move to larger premises at 12 rue de l’Odeon. This was the meeting place for many young writers (the rockstars of this time). Most of them were struggling financially and Sylvia offered them the opportunity to borrow books and make contacts with others in the literary community. She published James Joyce’s controversial book, “Ulysses” because other publishers thought it to be too controversial. During the war years of the early 1940s, the bookstore was mostly closed after having some unpleasant encounters with Nazis wanting (demanding) rare editions of her prized books. It is said that Hemingway “personally liberated” Shakespeare and Company at the end of WWII, however, Sylvia Beach never did reopen.
Another American, George Whitman, opened a bookstore, “Le Mistral”, in Paris in 1951. In 1964, after Sylvia Beach gave him the name, “Shakespeare and Company“, he changed the name of his shop as a tribute to her. This also coincided with the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Whitman had such affection for Sylvia Beach that he named his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman. He never turned away struggling writers giving them a place to stay in the bookstore. This could explain the quotation written on one the walls of the bookstore, “be not inhospitable to strangers lest they’re angels in disguise”. George Whitman lived in the apartment above the bookstore until he died at 98. The bookstore remains open today located close to Notre Dame at 37, rue de la Bucherie. His daughter, Sylvia, is now running the store. It is a treasure trove!
The Abbey Bookshop, located at 29, rue de la Parcheminerie, is just minutes from Shakespeare and Company by foot. The bookstore was opened by Canadian, Brian Spence, on July 1, (fitting) 1989. Outside of this beautiful building flutters the Canadian flag which always feels so welcoming when so far from home. Once the Hotel Dubuisson, the building is now historically protected. Inside, piled everywhere, are thousands of books, many Canadian. This is a good place to spend some serious “browsing time”!
Walking into Taschen, located at 2, rue de Buci, is like entering a small art gallery. The books, beautifully displayed, are “coffee table” quality on subjects ranging from art and photography, travel, fashion, pop culture and everything in between. Although the books are big and heavy (make this the last stop of the day), it’s worthwhile to bring one home as a lovely reminder of your time in Paris.
WHSmith, conveniently located at 248, rue de Rivoli, is one of my first stops when in Paris. I always pick a light, fluffy, fiction paperback usually about Paris to read in the Tuileries at the end of each day. Stopping to relax in the Tuileries gardens around 5pm is a must for me. I want to reflect on the day, rest a weary body, people watch and read.
p.s… you never know who you may run into. I had a close encounter with a fashion rockstar in WHSmith. I rubbed shoulders with Karl Lagerfeld… I was paying for a book and he was ordering books!