Pandemic-linked losses and renewed lockdowns have businesses worldwide going bust. Now a famed French shop with a very British name has issued an appeal: Buy our books—or say au revoir to Shakespeare and Company.
The shop was founded by Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1919. It is described as the world’s most famous independent bookshop. The English-language store was a creative hub for writers such as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.
Joyce called the store “Stratford-upon-Odeon.” The nickname merges the shop’s street address with Shakespeare’s birthplace. Shop lore says that during World War II, Beach closed Shakespeare and Company after refusing to sell a book to a German Nazi officer.
In 1951, the bookstore reopened in a new location overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral. Like Beach, new owner George Whitman welcomed a host of creatives.
Whitman’s daughter Sylvia Whitman runs the shop today. But like many independent stores, even pre-pandemic business suffered from competition with online retailer Amazon.
Months of coronavirus interruptions and forced quarantines took a toll as well. “We’ve been [down] 80% since the first confinement in March,” says Whitman.
This fall, she emailed customers. The message encouraged booklovers everywhere to support the celebrated shop by buying books or by becoming a Friend of Shakespeare and Company.
Whitman’s idea for appealing to readers came from the bookstore’s past. During the stock market crash of 1929, Beach set up a Friends of Shakespeare and Company fund to support the shop.
Today’s version allows supporters to send donations at varying levels and to receive “treats” in return. Those include a quarterly email, an enamel pin, autographed merchandise, and more.
Shakespeare and Company quickly received a record 5,000 online orders in one week—compared to the normal 100 orders.
Support came in—from ordinary students to former French President Francois Hollande, who dropped by the bookshop before the lockdown in response to Whitman’s plea. Many people donated or shared memories of falling in love at the shop.
A sign on the bookshop wall reads: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” It’s a rewording of Hebrews 13:2. Whitman explains: “[My father] let people sleep in the bookshop and called them ‘tumbleweeds.’” Their beds were often pallets made from tomes pulled from the shelves.
Whitman still entertains strangers. They need only help out in the shop, read a book a day, and write a one-page autobiography for the store’s overflowing files. Whitman says, “We’ve had 30,000 people sleep in the bookshop.”