The Bookhouse Tour: PARIS #1, Shakespeare & Company

PARIS, July 2014

How can you even begin an entry about Paris, after everything that has been written and painted and filmed and sung, after everything you’ve heard and seen? With so much to see and interpret, how can you cover even a fraction? On another note, how can you possibly say anything about ‘my trip to Paris’ or ‘what I ____ in Paris’ and on and on without sounding super uppity?

I’m not really sure. Probably best just to go straight into it.

Before I tell you about the books, I’ll gush about the bread. Most things I love begin with a ‘B’, and bread is high on the list. Little did I know that the French word for bakery (another B word!) is ‘boulangerie’, which sounds accurately sexy enough to describe the pleasure I get from the bread contained within. The croissants… the chocolate rolls… the loafs with nuts and raisins… it was mind-blowing. It was perfect. It was heaven.

That’s all for that. Now. To the Books. (The #1 ‘B’!)

This was my first trip to Paris, and it was very brief. To give you a quick personal background, I was there for five days, attending the wedding of one close friend and the graduation of another. Of the five days, I spent roughly three in Paris.

There was enough time to visit two bookstores. One in particular I was highly anticipating:  the first shop I could check off from my list of Ten of the World’s Most Beautiful Bookstores from the BBC. From what I’d read, Shakespeare and Company had been a well-known hangout for writers and artists for most of the last half-century. Struggling writers were allowed to stay in the upper floors of the shop, and I’m sure inspiration was not far away, with Notre Dame in clear view. The name is a reference to a 1920s-era bookstore where famous authors (Ernest Hemingway among them) would gather.

The shop was buzzing with activity. There were so many people that I reflexively felt I was back in the bustle of Hong Kong island. Several bookshelves outside held the first hints of what was to come: a rack of classics, a couple secondhand shelves, books about the city. Once I’d squeezed past the crowds to get inside, there was, as you’d expect, a wide array of books made dizzying by the curvy layout of the floorplan. It felt random and wonderful. The titles were impressively well organized in a compact space, and most seemed to be new books at your usual prices; I saw a copy of The Circle by Dave Eggers which I was reading at the time, and considered buying a second copy. There was a great selection of Paul Auster books as well.

My appetite, however, is for secondhand books, and it was for these that I was hungry. I found this section after walking up a narrow staircase to the upper floor, which was as heavy with books as the floor below; perhaps heavier, as these had more dust and wrinkles than the youth underneath. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to lose myself. I scanned titles, absorbing each area and genre.

A large room at the front of this upper floor had large windows facing the street outside. It held what appeared to be a large library of a fantastic collection of donated books. This was a delight to find, though I was panged knowing I couldn’t partake, with so little time in the city.

My time had expired and I left without buying anything; while I wanted something to remember the occasion, try as I might, I did not connect with a title, and so did not walk out with one.

I must admit that the overall feel of the bookstore, for obvious reasons, was more that of an attraction in the city than a pure bookstore, a necessary stopover for brief visits like mine. My goal is to find those places which make me feel as if I am walking into an unassuming yet curious house made of books, sometimes barely staying upright; Shakespeare & Company is rich with a history that will never let it be anonymous. It is absolutely worthy of a place on BBC’s Top Ten list, and definitely merits a visit. With more time, I’m sure I would’ve found the book I went there looking for.

However, my search continued.

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