That time when I lived in a Bookshop

I've definitely done some peculiar things in life, but one of the more unusual phases of my life was definitely when I lived in a bookshop in Paris on the banks of the Seine. Yes, as in, actually inside the bookshop itself. Shakespeare & Company bookshop is arguably one of the most famous independent bookshops in the world, and thousands flock there every day in order to see it for themselves.

The First (and Second) Shakespeare & Company Bookshop

First, a brief history lesson.

The original Shakespeare & Company bookshop was opened by American Sylvia Beach on in November 1919, first at 8 rue Dupuytren in the 6th arrondissement, before moving to larger premises at 12 rue de l'Odéon, also in 6e.

Quickly, Shakespeare & Company became a central hub for Paris' thriving artistic and literary ex-pat community (known as the lost generation), with many well-known writers and artists frequenting the bookshop, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and photographer, Man Ray. Many authors gave readings, including T. S. Eliot, Paul Valery, and even a rare reading from Hemingway.

Within this community, Sylvia Beach became everything from bookseller, to editor, agent, and secretary. In 1922, it was Beach who published James Joyce's controversial masterpiece, Ulysses, despite having no publishing experience.

Beach's bookshop thrived until, early in the second world war, in 1941, she was forced to close. Paris was at the time occupied by the Germans, and allegedly the sudden closure came about after Beach refused to sell the final copy of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to a German officer. In just a few hours, Sylvia had rallied her friends round to help her move everything from her shop (both stock and furnishings) to an upstairs apartment, and a house painter covered the Shakespeare & Company sign.

At the end of the way, Hemingway 'personally liberated' the shop, arriving at the address, and Beach's apartment above, as peace was declared. However, the shop never reopened.

Le Mistral Bookshop

It wasn't until ten years later, in 1951, that George Whitman (of no relation to the poet), another American ex-pat who had fallen hopelessly in love with Paris, rented a tiny shop at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, in the 5th arrondissement, opening an English-language bookshop under the name of Le Mistral. As with Sylvia Beach's bookshop, George's bookshop quickly became a central hangout for the bohemian ex-pat community of writers and artists of the time, particularly the 'beat generation' of the 1950s and 1960s. Well-known authors and poets such as Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, and James Baldwin. George became a good friend of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who founded the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco at around the same time. Whitman referred to his business as "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore", a description still fitting to this day.

Gradually, the little bookshop expanded, and to this day consists of the main bookshop, an antiquarian bookshop next door and a cafe on the corner; off of which was part of George's grand plan for his business.

Today the bookshop is run by George's daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, and her partner, David Delannet.

The Tumbleweeds

Throughout his life, George Whitman travelled the world as a self-proclaimed "tumbleweed," blowing from place to place, never laying down roots (until eventually settling in Paris). Wishing to repay the generosity that he encountered from strangers during his own travels, he opened the doors of his bookshop for guests to stay from pretty much the day that the business opened. In exchange for a bed, he asked that guests read a book per day, and help out in the bookshop for a few hours per day, and write a one-page autobiography to be added to the 'tumbleweed archives'.

To this day, Shakespeare & Company has hosted an estimated 30,000 tumbleweeds, and continue to do so. Beds can be found in the library (the upper floor) of the tiny bookshop, and while in George's day, he would host dozens of artists, writers and travellers at a time, with people bunking down on the floor, today the limit is generally three or four tumbleweeds at a time.

Oh, to be a Tumble!

I've heard many rumours and misconceptions about the tumbleweed experience since I stayed at the bookshop, and while all of the information necessary can be found on the bookshop's website, a lot of people still don't quite understand what it is to be a tumbleweed.

First of all, it's not akin to staying at a hotel. It is a volunteering experience, and everyone is expected to donate a few hours of their time every day; seven days a week. Every tumbleweed is expected to help with opening and closing the bookshop, working for a two-hour shift on the shop floor, generally stocking shelves, helping customers and working in the stock room, and 'tumbles' also help during the weekly events; setting up chairs, seating guests, so on. If you want to stay for longer than a week, be prepared to work hard and get mucked in. Cleanliness is important, and of course, you have to be good at living with others.

Secondly, you can't book in advance; you simply turn up, ask if you can be a tumbleweed and, if there is a bed available (or, more often, available within the coming days), you may be offered a place within the bookshop. Typically it is expected that all tumbles are aspiring writers, artists or musicians, and then your stay is on a week-by-week basis. Tumbles can be asked to leave at any time, so it's not a suitable accommodation option for people without a backup plan; prepare to spend a few nights in a hostel even if offered a bed, as generally there are a few days between being offered a bed and when it actually becomes available.

My Tumble Experience

I'd already been in Paris for a few weeks when I started 'tumbleweeding', and I'd been aware of Shakespeare & Company bookshop for several years, visiting whenever I was in Paris. To be a tumble had been on my bucket list for some time, but, as it was late August, still peak-season, I didn't expect to have any success when I popped into the bookshop to try my luck and see if they had a space available to me. A brief chat later, and I was told to come back in a few days, by which time a space would be available for me.

Honestly, this was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I made some incredible, life-long friends, read dozens of books that I otherwise would never have picked up, and really felt like I was part of a family. I didn't quite read one book a day, but I definitely did my best (the trick is to stick to novellas, and poetry books). Helping at events meant that I was lucky enough to hear readings by many amazing writers including Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith, and in such a thriving business, there's always something amazing going on.

As for life upstairs, in the tumble quarters… I think I fell in love with life all over again. The memories that I will hold most dear are the hushed 3 am pancake parties, the spontaneous noughties classics singalongs, drinking cheap wine on the banks of the Seine, writing my novel on a 60s typewriter, on a mezzanine in the middle of the shop (I think customers thought I was a performance piece), and of course, trading our wildest stories with the most eclectic group of fellow tumbles.

I also loved cuddling up to the bookshop pets; Colette the dog and Aggie the cat. Aggie is a full-time resident of the bookshop and loves sharing a bed with tumbleweeds in the library, and while Colette lives with Sylvia and her partner David, we would dog-sit from time to time. Because every bookshop needs a cat and dog, of course!


Support local businesses. Shop online at Shakespeare and Company here.

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