Each morning, back then, I breakfasted on strong coffee and sweet crepes and watched the early risers come by Shakespeare and Company, often to study the whimsical scribblings, etched on blackboards, of the late George Whitman, who established his bookstore on this site in 1951.
He liked quotations. One of his own explained that “I like you to open my door the way you open a book; a book that leads into a magic world in your imagination.”
The magic began even before you walked through the door.
A wooden bench out the front featured the inscrutable welcome of Samuel Beckett: “We spend our life, it’s ours, trying to bring together in the same instant a ray of sunshine and a free bench.”
Inside is the motto of Shakespeare and Company, misattributed by Whitman to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise.”
Whitman may have given the ageless quote his own swing (in fact it is borrowed from the Bible, Hebrews 13:2), but they were not empty words to him.
He shoved beds into the spaces between bookshelves and made them available to footloose artists, poets and aspiring writers.
“Tumbleweeds”, he called these travelling guests, remembering his own days as a young hobo in the Great Depression, jumping trains, hitch-hiking and tramping through the United States and Central America.
The tens of thousands of tumbleweeds who took up the offer of a bed at Whitman’s place were asked for nothing in return but to agree to read a book a day, write a one-page autobiography and lend a hand around the store.
When Whitman died in 2011, his daughter Sylvia – named after Sylvia Beach, the owner of the original Shakespeare and Company, which sat at a different address from 1919 to 1941 – maintained the tradition.
Generosity ran all the way from Sylvia Beach’s original store. When a young Ernest Hemingway couldn’t afford books, she lent them to him.
When James Joyce couldn’t find a publisher for his stream-of-consciousness classic Ulysses – which had faced obscenity charges when serialised earlier in a US journal – she published it herself, causing her considerable financial difficulties.
Joyce repaid her by moving to another publisher when he became successful, but Beach continued to befriend the most important writers and artists of the first half of the 20th century, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot to Man Ray.
Whitman also surrounded himself with the modernist literary leaders of his time, from Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Lawrence Durrell and Beckett to his friends from the Beat movement, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
And so, sitting outside Shakespeare and Company, I felt myself surrounded by legends.
Even with the lockdown blues playing, it remains a place that I feel moved to visit, as if answering Whitman’s old advice to open a book that leads into a magic world of the imagination.
But even there, the times have been pitiless. A few months after my last breakfast outside Whitman’s bookstore, the great cathedral across the Seine burned and its spire toppled. No one knows, really, how many years will pass before Notre Dame is restored.
And then came the virus that trapped the world. Shakespeare and Company closed its doors.
Happily, though, nothing could quite defeat the old place. Sylvia Beach Whitman put out a plea for customers to order books. So many responded that the system crashed.
Shakespeare and Company was saved by the internet and friends across the world.
Lately, with the advent of vaccination passports (Passe Sanitaire), live poetry readings are held outdoors at Shakespeare and Company, where Beckett’s words remain, urging us to try to bring together in the same instant a ray of sunshine and a free bench.
The plague notwithstanding, the word and the imagination emerge triumphant.