06 November 2020

Famous Paris book store ‘overwhelmed’ after appeal for help

06 November 2020

Shakespeare and Company, the Paris book store that published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, hailed the response following an appeal to readers for support after pandemic-linked losses and France’s spring lockdown put the future of the famous Left Bank institution in doubt.

The English-language book shop on the River Seine sent an email to customers last week to inform them that it was facing “hard times” and to encourage them to buy a book.

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

Paris entered a fresh lockdown on October 30 that saw all non-essential stores shut for the second time in seven months.

Since then, Ms Whitman said she has been “overwhelmed” by the offers of help Shakespeare and Company has received. There have been a record-breaking 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 book shop overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral before the lockdown in response to the appeal.

Many Parisians contacted Ms Whitman to donate to the shop — 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 book shop and called them ‘tumbleweeds’. We’ve had 30,000 people sleep in the book shop,” said Ms Whitman, 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 book shop. Founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919, it became a creative hub for expatriate writers including Ernest Hemingway, TS Eliot, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.

Sylvia Whitman in the book store (AP)

Reflecting on Ms Beach’s decision to publish Ulysses, Joyce’s ground-breaking novel of more than 700 pages, Ms 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 the book store “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 book shop as a sanctuary,” Ms Whitman said.

During the Second World War, as the shop’s story goes, Ms 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 is not only Mr 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.

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