Pilgrimage to the Best Bookstore in Paris
“I love walking into a bookstore. It’s like all my friends are sitting on shelves, waving their pages at me.”
― Tahereh Mafi
The Pull to Literary Paris
One of my first pilgrimages was to the best bookstore in Paris: The Shakespeare Bookstore.When I read Phil Cosineau’s book The Art of Pilgrimage, he discussed a variety of ways we pilgrimage to places today. This exact bookstore was noted as one spot that literature lovers have on their bucket lists.
Prior to moving to Paris, The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore was the sole friend I knew that existed in the city. I visited her as often as I could during the span of one short trip. Sometimes I made this trip daily if I was staying in a hotel close by.
She has always brought me great pleasure over the years. Time has increased her stardom, and she’s been immortalized on travel shows and films, such as Before Sunset or even in the opening scenes of Midnight in Paris.
I’ve boasted about my love of this treasured bookstore anytime anyone visits Paris. This is a must, right after The Eiffel Tower and The Louvre. But once people arrive at the entrance, they are turned off by the line of tourists that stands at the front of the store every day of the week. People snub their noses, thinking “I’m not going to wait in line for a bookstore. How ridiculous!” It is off putting. There’s even a doorman. My friends and I have seemed to have aged out of waiting in line for nightclubs or Sunday brunches, so why wait in line for a bookstore?
But I want to caution you, it’s worth it.
English Bookstore in Paris
“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Tourists will wander into the store and choose to not heed the “no photograph” signs around. They will try to explore every nook, looking to capture why this venue has become a place of pilgrimage. Some may understand the history. The initial owner Sylvia Beach started the store in a different location, whose customers and friends included The Lost Generation of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. But then war broke out, and this store closed in 1941. It opened again in 1951, by an American expat George Whitman, and now run by his daughter Sylvia Whitman. Other writers would frequent here, including Anais Nin, James Baldwin, and Henry Miller. For those who have become obsessed with the store’s history, we can inhale this in each time we walk down one of the aisles. Yet for many tourists, they seem to have no idea what they have embarked upon.
The store seems quirky, with painted signs that grace the walls and stairs, beds to sit on in the reading nooks upstairs, a cat that wanders from room to room, and a typewriter that stares out onto a window facing Notre Dame. Oftentimes this is exactly the backdrop for one’s intelligent look for that Instagram shot. They may purchase a tote bag and a book stamped with Shakespeare’s face, and that is it. The entirety of their time in the store lasts 15 minutes. But I find when I visit the store, I can easily extend this pilgrimage to one hour.
A Beloved Used Bookshop
Used books grace the exterior of the shop. If you have the patience to get through the line and the condensed people milling about the crowded areas downstairs, find a spot upstairs in the first room. The upper level of this bookshop is filled with used bookshop, which are purely for pleasure and not for sale.
Look into the first corner room, and you will find a piano. Depending on the day, it may be on or off key. There have been many moments, where I have sat down here and been entertained by impromptu concerts by shoppers who are hidden musicians. These pianists choose to spend their time in the store by drifting to another zone as they play a tune by memory. People will gather and watch in wonder. Collectively, something shifted. Live entertainment arose in front of us, not on social media apps, but in writing salons or jazz clubs. I watch in awe of how much inspiration this store has exuding in it’s atmosphere.
If you sit here long enough, and wait for the tourists to settle. There are moments of silence and magic. Collectively we exist as one for a brief moment, and isn’t this something we are all searching for?
Therefore, next time you are in Paris, stand in line for this bookstore. Don’t let it scare you. It’s one of the few things that is worth the hype. Walk towards the back of the store, up the stairs, and travel to another dimension.