Whether the smell or the feel or the awareness of all of the ideas that readily flow from within its walls, there is something about a bookstore. I can’t speak for the massive, sprawling bookstores where everything is organized and clearly marked, where candle holders and throw pillows are sold and the only classics are Pride and Prejudice and 1984, but of the kind that are stacked high with books, made a slave to the power of the creative and curious mind, there is little to compare them to.
From spine to spine, for the avid reader, the familiarity of the interesting titles rings out: Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night and Djuna Barnes Nightwood, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. In the kind of bookstore that is built solely out of love for books, it nearly feels like a holy place, full of the wisdom of bygone ages and the words of those who have tread the streets beyond, lived different lives in unimaginable times. Much like a good record store, it is a gift to find something you didn’t know you were searching for; a key to a world that you weren’t sure even existed.
In Paris, Shakespeare & Company is such a bookstore, sitting along the Rue de la Bûcherie, which – like books themselves – is held back from the busyness of the street that lines the Seine, looking out at Île de la Cité and Notre Dame Cathedral. As a place that possesses a rich history, the first store was opened nearly a century ago in 1919 and has seen the artists of the Jazz Age, the launched careers of writers like Henry Miller and James Joyce, and the new artists of today who can sleep among its books for a time.
With its jumble of wooden shelves stacked with book after book, there is a quietude that takes over. Even though there are voices, small questions about books; a release; an event in the city; the tone is hushed as if it must, in the presence of such immensity, defer. The first time I went, I picked out five or seven books – books I had rarely if ever seen in a bookstore. “I’ve always meant to read this,” the clerk said of one, and it meant something – to share the experience of a time, a lesser-known novel, for an instant.
It was on my second visit to the famous bookstore that I bought Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, only to come back later in the evening to the brimming, half-lit entrance area around it to hear a reading by Lenny Kaye, the guitarist for the Patti Smith Group. I can’t remember the reading, but the words flooded over the surrounding crowd on the scatter of chairs, and drifted off into the surrounding night, towards the marooned blackness of the Seine and the resolute lights of Notre Dame.
In times of online music and booksellers like Amazon, it seems that stores like Shakespeare & Company are much less common, nearly relegated to a time and a place that is out of step with existence. But, to buy gardening shears, a T-shirt and a book at the same place is not quite the same experience. It is a relief to find a place built out of a love for the creative instinct, a passion for art and humanity’s highest reach; a place where a consumer good is more than an object for sale but an idea, precious and unmistakable.