If a book can “change your life,” a bookstore can utterly transform it. A story on how the bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris changed one man’s life.
Jeremy Mercer | November 2007 issue
One of the more romantic literary notions is that a book can change a person’s life. Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Ford, for instance, claims Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer made Ford the author he is today. Or a book can have more immediate consequences for people, such as my grade-school friend who read My Side of the Mountain and promptly ran away from home with nothing but a penknife and a ball of twine.
If a book can change your life, a bookstore can utterly transform it. In my case, I found one, or perhaps it found me, at a critical juncture when I was turning my back on everything I had known.
It was a damp January day in 2000 when I discovered the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. I had left my home in Canada a month earlier, having burned out in my job as a newspaper reporter. I was approaching my 29th birthday, had little money and even less idea what to do with myself.
When I saw the bookstore, just across the Seine river from Notre Dame cathedral, I went in to look for a used paperback. I found much more. Shakespeare and Company turned out to be a surreal cross between a left-wing bookstore and a utopian commune. The owner, George Whitman, practises a type of simple Marxism and founded his store on the philosophy of “Give what you can; take what you need.” When the store opened in 1951, he installed a bed among the shelves and invited people to stay free in return for helping around the shop and reading a book a day.
When I arrived, Whitman had added another dozen beds. He says 40,000 people—more than the population of his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, when he grew up in the 1920s—have slept at Shakespeare and Company. Notable guests include Allen Ginsberg, John Denver and Lawrence Durrell. That wet January, with nothing to lose, I packed up my suitcase and moved in.
For five months, I lived among those books. I had eclectic travellers and artists as roommates, the Latin Quarter as my front yard, and, most vitally, Whitman as my mentor. He told me what to read, showed me the richness of a simple lifestyle and taught me to love at least something in every person who walked into that bookstore. When I finally left, I was a different man with different dreams. I would never return to the stressful hours and empty consumerism of my previous life.
Whitman turns 94 this year and he is still the soul of Shakespeare and Company. There has been a parade of tributes, most recently his designation as “Officier des Arts et Lettres” from the French Ministry of Culture. However his true legacy is the thousands of people like me, people whose lives have been changed by his quixotic philosophy and who carry it with them.
This story comes from the Book Special in Ode Magazine’s November issue titled “What the world reads now.”