In 1951, an eccentric American named George Whitman opened a bookstore with the hope of creating a literary hub in the heart of Paris.
Whitman, a fervent communist, decided he would welcome all writers needing a place to stay in Paris as his own personal guests at the bookstore. Painted over an inner door is the bookshop’s motto “be kind to strangers lest they be angels in disguise,” an endearing welcome for all those with a heart astray.
The requirements are simple. On a first-come, first-serve basis, these guests—whom Whitman dubbed the “Tumbleweeds”—must write a biography and help out for an hour or two a day around the bookstore. With 13 beds concealed as bookshelves during the day, Shakespeare and Company has become a utopia for the wanderlust-stricken traveler, looking for a place to stay in Paris. Whitman calls the bookstore “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”
Originally the shop was named Le Mistral, but on the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth in 1964, Whitman renamed it Shakespeare and Company. The name is an homage to the bard, as well as to a legendary bookstore of the same name, which was owned by Sylvia Beach and frequented by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and other writers. The original Shakespeare and Company on the Rue de l’Odeon closed during World War II, but Whitman’s shop picked up the mantle.
Today, over 50 years later, Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia—also named in honor of Sylvia Beach—has taken over the day-to-day management of the store, but the Tumbleweed tradition still lives on with as many as 40,000 people having slept in the shop over the years.
Regular activities that occur in the bookshop are Sunday tea, poetry readings, and writers’ meetings. In the 1950s, the shop served as a base for many of the writers of the Beat Generation, such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. Years later the adjacent building was purchased by Shakespeare & Co., and now functions as a café and bistro featuring literature-themed menu items to budding writers.
The library has also been featured in Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunset (2004) and in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011).
Know Before You Go
Shakespeare and Company is located on the Left Bank of Paris, opposite the Notre Dame cathedral, on 37 rue de la Bûcherie in the Latin Quarter. The bookstore is open daily from 10 am to 10 pm, while the adjacent cafe is open from 9:30 am to 7 pm (8 pm on weekends). Shakespeare and Company can get crowded (especially on weekends) so it is advised to visit the bookstore either earlier in the day or later in the evening to avoid lines.
For those keen on staying at Shakespeare and Company as a tumbleweed, you'll have to get in touch with the bookshop directly via e-mail, with the subject line "Tumbleweed" to plan your accommodations in advance.