A Home In Paris

After the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, I came upon this article, about how the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore sheltered people during that terrible night.

George Whitman, the legendary owner and resident of this magical place, passed away in 2011. The news affected me more than I had expected. Across the ocean, I mourned with Paris and all of the community who had set foot through his doors.

A few steps away from Notre Dame, this tiny yellow bookstore is one of the few places in the world where I feel completely at home. And I am not the only one.

I remember my first time here. A mix of nostalgia, comfort, and peace soothed me as I climbed the wooden staircase to the second floor.

You can’t miss the bold, black letters painted above the doorway: “BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE”.

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PH: Sylvie D. Huhn

Photo: Sylvie D. Huhn

On the second floor, books are not for sale, but you are welcome to browse the tattered covers and read for as long as you like on one of the many beds.

And why are there so many beds? Because George Whitman created a haven for writers. In exchange for working in the store, writers can stay here while they write.

Every time I return to Paris, I return to this bookstore.  I love to bring people here.

Below is a journal entry from when I studied abroad in Paris in 2008, when George Whitman was still alive. One Sunday, I was invited to tea with the staff and others in the bookstore, which was a custom, I learned, every Sunday.

PH: Sylvie D. Huhn

Tea upstairs with staff and other patrons. Photo: Sylvie D. Huhn

~March 2, 2008~
All of a sudden, the most ancient human being I’ve ever seen appeared in the doorway.
He was a tiny, scrawny man, with shoulder-length white hair, the skin on his face wrinkled like one of the books on the shelf.
And he was in pajamas.
This was George Whitman. The one and only.
 And we were in his living room having tea, I suddenly realized.
He said something that I couldn’t quiet understand and waved to everyone in a single sweep of his arm, before disappearing back through the door to his room.
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Photo of George Whitman outside the shop.

I can’t believe a place like this still exists. I look out the window and see the souvenir shops, the congested Avenue St. Michel, the honking cars and the double-decker tourist buses.  Modern day Paris bustles by outside the window, but right now all I care about is this group of strangers I’m sharing tea with, in this tiny room from the past.

Here is a great article about the history of the original bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919.

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The stairway up to the room to have tea.

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