I’m writing this while sitting on a stool near a typewriter on the second floor of Shakespeare and Company (in the poetry section). I want to remember the cat. I feel an immediate kinship with it. It’s a gray tabby, like my first cat, Amiee.* It turns out they call the cat, Aggie.** I must say, it is quieter here than at Notre Dame. The church bells are ringing. It’s noon and it’s calling all of us to come to mass.
Amid the melodic whispers in various languages are the sounds of footsteps of curious fellow visitors going up and down the worn and wooden steps.
I told myself that I wouldn’t romanticize this visit to S&Co, but as I sit on this stool, I do hope (wish?) inspiration comes to me. I’m going to write something on a page and then tape it to the mirror – seems to be a tradition.
That was an excerpt from my journal.
After visiting Notre Dame, I crossed the street and a couple of short turns later into an alley and courtyard, I arrived at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore! Unfortunately, photography inside was not allowed. I wanted to ignore the signs, break the rules, and take lots of pictures so badly! But I didn’t, so I took notes instead.
Shakespeare and Company
In the early 1950’s, an American named George Whitman opened this independent English-language bookstore at its present location on 37 rue de la Bûcherie. He named it Shakespeare and Company after the original bookstore in Paris that another American expatriate, Sylvia Beach, had opened in the early 1920’s.
Several weeks before I arrived in Paris, I had come across an article in The Guardian written by best-selling author, Lauren Elkin, in which she describes her research and writing process for her latest book, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. A flâneuse is basically the female version of a flâneur, a man who walks around observing society. As a woman who’d be traveling solo (and walking around a lot), I agreed wholeheartedly with two sentences in her article:
“…It takes a daunting amount of conviction to convert natural curiosity into willpower. To up and go is the boldest statement of self-preservation.” (Emphasis mine.)
Those lines should be on a motivational poster, if they weren’t already, I thought. I scribbled the quote in my travel journal and also added the title to my “books to read” list.
Well, imagine my surprise when I found a three-foot tall stack of the book^ in front of the cashier at Shakespeare and Company! Are you kidding me? I couldn’t believe it. What were the odds? I bought the book (14€) and when the cashier asked me if I’d like my book stamped, I said, “Yes, please!” (Of course! Bien sûr!)
I also picked up a mug (as Jennifer requested), tote bag, and postcard before visiting the Shakespeare and Company Café next door.
While I had a satisfying experience at the bookstore, my time at the café left much to be desired. I really wanted to love the café, but it was disappointing. For example, they spoke only English in the café (but we’re in France, n’est-ce pas?) The pastry selection was paltry and uninspired (Pecan pie? Mexican wedding cookie?) I like those desserts, but I was expecting something…else. Finally, I decided on a boring brownie and a cup of a so-so Americano. I sat by the window, which gave me a nice view of Notre Dame. While I sipped and nibbled, I thought about how I would answer each question on my placemat, aka the Kilometer Zero Proust Questionnaire. (If you’re curious, my answers are here.)
One of my personal goals on this trip was not to rush through places. In the past, I had over-scheduled itineraries and didn’t account for unexpected moments or allow for varying traffic conditions. I remember feeling exhausted, frustrated, and unsuccessful because I felt like I hadn’t checked off all the boxes on my to-do list. This time, however, I decided I would visit certain places, but at a more relaxed, go-with-the-flow pace. I gave myself the permission to linger as little or as long as I wanted. If something was on my list, I was open to adjust, if needed, and not feel bad about it. Besides, I could just add it to the itinerary for next time!
My experience visiting the bouquinistes, or booksellers, helped me with this goal because it was simply impossible to rush. I couldn’t see everything even if I tried, but I took my time browsing through various books, political posters, newspapers, and magazines. I was one happy bookworm!
As I inched along, I greeted each bookseller with a friendly “Bonjour” before taking a closer look at their treasures in those huge green boxes.
In the area in front of Notre Dame, a soft-spoken young woman asked me if she could help me find something. I asked if she had any works by Molière. (In college, I remember his plays, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Tartuffe, were required reading.) She had two titles and I bought one of them for 3€. Now I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading it anytime soon, but I’m happy to add the book (still wrapped in cellophane) to my box of French class textbooks, which I started collecting when I was in college.
Later on, I stopped at a book stall that was selling mini padlocks. I wanted to take part in the tradition of attaching a so-called love lock on the bridge and throwing away the key in the Seine River to symbolize everlasting love. Well, the bookseller told me that he could sell me the lock, but that I should be aware that they no longer allow them on the Pont des Arts and that I’d have to walk back one bridge over to Pont Neuf, where it was permitted. Good to know! It was getting hot so walking back was not an option. After all, I had a lot more Flâneuse-ing to do!
*The 13-year-old budding Francophile in me named my cat the French word for friend – creative spelling included!
**Well, isn’t that another wonderful coincidence, I thought. After all, we UC Davis grads are called Aggies.
^After I returned home and read the author’s bio on her website, I learned that Lauren Elkin currently curates and hosts an author series for Shakespeare and Company, so it makes sense to me (now!) that they would display her books prominently there. Between you and me, I’ll keep believing that finding her book was an instance of serendipity!