One day in early November, 2014, I arrived at a little book shop facing Notre-Dame in Paris and sheepishly explained to a staff member that a friend of a friend had said that I could perhaps sleep here, in the book shop, while I researched my new novel, Let Us Be True. I half expected them to start laughing at me, but instead, they led me to the back, up the stairs, through a little library with beaten up leather armchairs, unlocked a door to a stairway landing, unlocked another door, and led me into a little staff room. There were lockers and a bunk bed filled with backpacks; books, everywhere; a photo of Walt Whitman stuck to a mirror; the ‘tumbleweed cookbook’, a work in progress decorated with coloured-in graph paper; a cactus with sunglasses named Karl; bottles of cheap wine from Nicolas; on the window was a painted cartoon of Virginia Woolf. In this room, I was initiated into the secret world of the Tumbleweeds.
It’s actually the second shop to have the name Shakespeare & Co. The first was run by a woman called Sylvia Beach who also operated it a private lending library and was a general shoulder to cry on for pretty much the entire Lost Generation of the twenties and thirties, even undertaking to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses when it proved too hot to handle in Britain and America. Her shop was closed down during the Occupation and never re-opened, but George Whitman, who owned another Left Bank book shop, got her permission to rename his own shop Shakespeare & Co after the war. Since then, first George and then his daughter (named Silvia in tribute to the first owner) have taken in vagrant writers, with only a few conditions.
First, you should read a book a day. You’re not there to smoke Gauloises, you are there to sponge from the library. You will sleep on camping mattresses among the shelves (one in the library, two next to the piano, one hidden behind a little curtain above the children’s books). In the morning, you get up, figure out the day’s shelf-stacking rota, empty the dehumidifier in the basement (no one likes rotting stock), and unshutter the shop. Boards are unboarded; shelves are wheeled out front. You may subsidise your income with money dropped in the wishing well, where a little sign says ‘feed the starving writers’. There is only limited access to the kitchen, so you’d better like cheese, meat and bread. When I was there, we were also trying to come up with puns for the café they were thinking of opening (‘Tender is the Bite’, ‘Mushroom with a View’, ‘Finnegan’s Cake’).
It was the perfect place to conduct my research: across the road was the Caveau de la Huchette, where my main character, Ralf, went to watch live jazz; down towards the Sorbonne were the roads where the fighting was most intense during the 1968 student riots; just across the bridge, on the Île de la Cité, was the square du Vert-Galant, where Ralf sat watching the Seine, shoulder to shoulder with the woman he was falling in love with. I spent the days wandering around these places, feeling as if I had climbed inside my own novel. And then in the evenings, I would chat with the other tumbleweeds that were sleeping in the book shop – we would read each other poetry, we’d talk about what made great literature, our eyes shining, inspired by the possibilities (and possibly also by the red wine). Those nights felt perfect and endless, which made it feel all the more unfair when I realised my time was already up, and I had to catch my train the next day.
The last thing you have to do before you leave is write a one-page autobiography, which everyone staying at the shop has had to do, apocryphally, for the benefit of the government, who rightly considered the shop a hotbed of radicalism. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to read some of the thousands of autobiographies in the archive there, including famous guests like James Baldwin. By the time I came to write mine, I was in love with the place. ‘Some things change inevitably and others we have a duty to preserve,’ I hammered out at the battered typewriter on my last morning, in a sentimental daze, glancing up occasionally at Notre-Dame through the window. ‘It is why I came to this place and why people queue to get in, why the library is filling with pilgrims, even as I type, desperate to confirm the rumour that there is still generosity and shelter here, and that the library which exists in the heart of every book lover is real.’
First published on Love Books.