Shakespeare and Company: Heaven on earth

Image credit: stmaciorowski

I first visited Shakespeare and Company last summer, having discovered this particular literary Mecca online. Although I have, at the time of writing, only been there once, I say "first" because I am confident that I will return, drawn back like an iron filing to a magnet, like so many others before me. Originally, I was intrigued by the bohemian nature of the place, mainly because, like many of the various Tumbleweeds that have drifted through its doors, I fancied myself as a writer, although I had yet to write anything of either quality or quantity.

For months before I returned to the bustling glamour of Paris, with its new, threatening air courtesy of the bullies and cowards who have rented her heart and terrorised her people, I dreamed of the bookshop. It became, to me, a shining vault of words and people and the kind of heritage that does not make it into the history books, for it is deemed too small or too insignificant. The dreams, hopes, and love affairs of over thirty thousand literary vagrants who have crossed its doors are not considered important in a world which only seems to record wars and politics.

We arrived in Paris early one morning, and took the sleepy métro to Île de la Cité, so we could take in the surprisingly understated beauty of Notre Dame in the dim morning light. It is at its best and most monumental before hordes of tourists descend upon it like vultures upon a carcass, all vying for the best photograph. For some who take shelter in the bookshop as a temporary home, the sight of Notre Dame has become part of the fabric of their everyday life, as they open the blinds and reorganise the books in Sylvia Beach's library. It looks out over the Seine to the place where Amélie's mother, in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's wondrously chaotic film, is killed by a desperate Canadian tourist bent upon ending her life.

I spotted the famous esplanade from the Pont au Double; immediately, I felt like I had caught a glimpse of home in the distance. Alas, we had been too eager, and so we had to wait while the shop was awakened, a red rope slung across the entrance tantalisingly, like a finish-line ribbon I'd been waiting my entire life to cross, without knowing it.

Once inside, I was stunned into silence. Here was a place of words and thoughts; here was a home for writers and wanderers. Perhaps I should take after one poet who stayed there for five years, since that would be the only way to even make a dent in the mass of volumes that exist there purely to remind you of how much there is to learn and how many writers there are just crying out to be heard. To read the entirety of Sylvia Beach's extensive library would probably provide you with a better education than any university ever could.

After a few hours browsing the shelves and forcing myself to be rational about the fact that I could not afford to buy all the books that I had gathered in an ecstasy of blurb-reading, what particularly struck me about the bookshop was its motto, painted in uneven capitals above a door: “be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” All who pass through the doors start off as strangers, and may certainly be strange; yet here, in these walls that seem to be built of books, we have found heaven on earth.

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