At 37 Rue Bûcherie, just across the river from the Notre Dame in Paris, stands a quaint little English bookshop called Shakespeare and Co. At this bookshop, aspiring writers are allowed to live above it for free, working a couple of hours in the shop itself, as long as they agree to write their life story, on a page that the owner would read. The old owner, who recently passed the shop to his daughter, still reads all the short biographies, and has kept them all since he started the place in 1951. The life and the aspirations of young travellers, from all over the World, over the past 60 years, he has written on pieces of paper. It is rather brilliant.
The bookshop itself is old school in design. It isn’t like Waterstones, with a computer in the middle and a minimalist style with a beautifully modern feeling and ordinary human beings free of immense pretentiousness roaming the different sections. It is quite the opposite. It is small, and the wooden shelves in such a small cramped space, with old ladders that run the length of it on a metal runner, coupled with old carpeting, red velvet curtains, and books arranged in an odd set up gives the whole place a very nostalgic feel.
The old owner, who is now around 98 years old, and who played host in the shop to the writers of the Beat Generation, once referred to the shop as “A socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.” You could use your full creative tendencies, in private, surrounded by an aura of creativity, living there for free. It was obviously going to produce some of the greatest literary minds in history.
Upstairs, is a room for people to sit and read, with a piano in the corner. As I was walking around downstairs, I heard the playing and singing quite beautifully and softly of Mad World coming from upstairs. I stopped to listen for a second or two, and genuinely loved it. Every so often I am pleasantly surprised by unforeseen talent. The bookshop has so many positive points.
The problem is, it’s full of wankers.
As we walked in, a man with an accent of what I can only imagine a character in a Dickens novel might have, as if he had just found his way out of an episode of Bleak House and lost his way home to the 1800s was sitting just outside, waiting to finish his fag, which was being held up by an elbow balancing in a supremely camp manner, on his knee which was crossed over his other leg. He had red cords with white socks. He had floppy blonde hair, and a turtle neck jumper. He also used the word “yar” instead of “yes“. When he entered the bookshop, he walked up to a lady looking at the back of a Virginia Woolf novel. She looked plainly agitated by this random man, when he spent the next five minutes telling her, for absolutely no discernible reason, why he disliked Virginia Woolf and her style of writing.
The shop was full of people who seem to seriously presume in the most intense show of self delusion possible, that they are DEFINITELY the next Hemingway, but must stay in this one shop in Paris in order to fully utilise the genius that the World would surely soon come to adore. They couldn’t possibly prevent the entire show of extreme pretentiousness and stay at home with a laptop on Microsoft Word and a unique concept and story like the majority of successful authors do, they instead have to dress like what they perceive a writer must dress like, in a World of cliches, in the hope that maybe by looking and talking with an air of arrogance and self assurance the literary Gods will magically shower them with talent.
I wish they’d just resign themselves to accepting they will grow old, fat, and become a Tory MP.
The shop itself is now far too commercial. It has a commercial feel along side its nostalgic feel. As if the nostalgic feel is profitable, so the owners have simply created that feeling, because it attracts idiots, and they like to feel as if they are living in an historical period, when people will look back as visit the area, because they were there! People visit the Latin Quarter in Paris, because Sartre and Camus frequented the cafes in the 1940s, along with other great existentialists. They created that World. They were the originals. They are a
World Universe away from the pretentious idiots frequenting a commercial bookshop in 2011 simply because a few successful writers once stayed at the bookshop.
The curse of commercialised “creativity“.
An American guy ran into the shop, and said “oh my god, is she here?” referring to the lady who runs the shop and allows you to stay if she’s impressed with your work. The problem here is two fold. Firstly, the American seems to think its mightily important for “her” to recognise the literary genius he clearly needs to show to her. If I were such a great writer, I would be able to get myself published and adored without the need for a woman who is clearly trying to cash in on the historical significance of a shop that has long since lost its beauty. Secondly, the checkout girl replied to “oh my god, is she here” with “…she doesn’t just see anyone, you know“, which suggests the checkout girl considers herself far more talented than she actually is, given that she was allowed to live there, and secondly, that “she” is some mystical, all-knowing literary Godess, yet the “her” in question, the lady who owns the shop, is not an author, she isn’t an established poet or even journalist. She’s simply the daughter of the guy who started the place. He hosted the old, long dead bohemian life of Paris’ left bank. Bohemia, across much of the World actually, is commercialised Bohemia. It really doesn’t exist quite like it did. It is nostalgia more than anything. He hosted the genius of Hemingway, Ginsberg and Burroughs. She hasn’t yet had that level of success, because the bookshop is now simply a tourist attraction for literary mediocrity. (I will happily eat my words, if the next Orwell says he was inspired entirely by a little English bookshop in Paris).
It is no longer a place for budding writers and unknown creative geniuses to produce something new. That era is finished. It was real. It was not contrived. Now, it is contrived purely for commercial tourism reason. This change is reflected in the people being accepted to stay in the bookshop. Under her father, anyone could stay, as long as they produced writing that the owner considered good enough. The most creative juices could flow. Now, the new owner typically only allows published authors to stay, in an attempt to boost the reputation of the bookshop….. for commercial reasons.
I have crossed Abbey Road, it doesn’t mean I walk around as if i’m going to be the next John Lennon, sitting in a camo jacket, at a piano, with a little Japanese lady ruining every song I decide to sing.
Despite the apparent commercial contrived atmosphere, and feeling of horrid arrogance that streams through the shop; there is still a sense of hope and uniqueness that is missing elsewhere across the World. It is certainly something different, and a great idea. In a World where creativity is hindered by the desperate chase for money, a place in an exciting, beautiful city, free of charge, dedicated to creativity, is essential. It is a haven. If only it focused on attractive young creative minds, and not on the economic benefits of appealing to the tourist market, it could again be a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.
More Parisian blogs to come.