I have always loved books. Reading them, flicking through them, just looking at them lined neatly on creaky old bookshelves. I put my love of books and reading down to my mum and dad who read to me frequently when I was little and provided myself and my siblings with loads of books bought cheaply from op shops. As an adult, one of my favourite things to buy are books, and my favourite shops are secondhand bookshops, particularly shambly old ones complete with that wonderful musty old book smell.
One of the best things I did when I was overseas was visit the Shakespeare & Company bookshop near Notre Dame in Paris. I’d heard a few stories about it from fellow travellers and had read somewhere that it was an experience not to be missed, especially if you were a secondhand book junkie like me.
Originally called La Mistrel and started by George Whitman back in the 50’s, it changed its name to Shakespeare & Company upon the death of Sylvia Beach who had opened the first Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris in 1919, before its closure during the Second World War. It has functioned as a library and a bookshop since its opening, and also as a refuge for artists and writers known as ‘tumbleweeds’ who need a place to stay. All George asked was that they made their beds in the morning, helped out in the shop and read a book every day, a practice that is still in place today. This is my kind of bookshop.
Dark without being gloomy, the bookshop was a series of small narrow rooms lined with shelves and complete with uneven floors and tottering piles of books stacked on every available surface. My small backpack became a weapon of mass disruption and I clutched it firmly in my arms, trying desperately not to upset any of the piles or annoy any of my fellow browsers.
I could’ve stayed there for hours.
I wish I had. In the end though it became quite difficult to navigate the narrow passageways when numbers increased to half a dozen or more, and so I made a couple of purchases for a friend – which were stamped with the official Shakespeare & Company logo – and reluctantly took my leave.
I also stumbled across a list of the 10 Best Bookshops in the world last night, and discovered to my delight that the Shakespeare & Company bookshop clocked in at #2, behind the Amsterdam American Book Centre. I have no idea what the criteria is, but I was pretty stoked to think that I’d been fortunate enough to visit the second best bookshop in the world! Now I just need to figure out how I’m going to see all the rest…
If you’ve enjoyed all this talk of books you should also visit Greer at A Sweet Unrest who recently featured a heartbreakingly beautiful poem by Czeslaw Milosz called And Yet The Books.
Now that you’re full to the brim with gorgeous bookshops and beautiful poetry, you may as well top it up with some classic French music. Cliched though it might be, I always feel the need to reach for Charles Trenet lately when thinking of my time (brief though it was) in Paris, and I even managed to find a relevant track in amongst my collection. Enjoy.