We had been traveling for something like twenty straight hours when we finally reached our last signpost–the customs official at LAX. He squinted dubiously at the declaration form we had filled out. “You only spent a hundred dollars in Europe?” he said with justifiable skepticism.
“We bought this sweater,” I said, raising my youngest child’s hand to show off the Benetton cardigan we had grabbed in desperation when he had been cold one day. “Otherwise, all we got were books. Lots and lots of books.” He smiled, waved us on through, and we stumbled our way out of the airport.
The great thing about being on vacation is that my kids read in a way they just don’t read at home when homework takes up their time and makes them reluctant to open any book, and the computer is vying for their attention. This vacation, they were powering through the books they had packed.
They read a lot in London, but they could also watch TV there and we were also at the theater a lot. Once we got to Paris, though, where our internet didn’t work and the shows were all in French, well, they wouldn’t stop reading. Not even when we were walking down the Champs Elysees (see photo).
Anyway, the point is they were reading during every moment of downtime. In the morning, they’d each take a small backpack and put a book in it to read whenever we’d stop anywhere to rest. Sometimes it wasn’t even to rest: we have a photo of my daughter right in front of Notre Dame, calming balancing on a little pillar, making her way through The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks while the rest of us excitedly pointed out gargoyles and the inlaid star that indicates ”point zero” for Paris.
To be fair, Annie was exhausted by the time we reached Notre Dame, and so were we all. We had started at the Arc de Triomphe right after breakfast, wandered all the way along the Champs Elysees to the Tuileries, explored the Louvre, and then made our way along the Seine to Notre Dame. Miles and miles of walking, not even counting the time spent wandering around one of the world’s biggest museums. Our exhaustion, combined with the fact that we were running out of English language books to read, meant only one thing: we needed a bookstore and we needed one fast.
And of course, we were just a few blocks away from one of the greatest and most famous bookstores in the world: Shakespeare and Company.
It seems somewhat foolish to me to write at length about Shakespeare and Co.–a bit like writing about Shakespeare himself, in that you sort of feel like ‘what’s left to say that hasn’t already been said?’ We weren’t exactly discovering some small unknown treasure. In fact, right before we left for Europe, Kim sent me a NY Times piece by Jeanette Winterson that pretty much tells you all you need to know about the store’s history and ethos. No need for me to repeat all that–just click on the link and you’ll get a much better summation of what makes Shakespeare and Company cool than I can give you.
What I can tell you is this: it was an oasis in a desert, right where we needed it when we needed it. The books are in English and pretty much everyone we spoke to there was either American, British, or Canadian. Yes, there are rare books (in a little annex next door) and there’s a huge section devoted to the writers who all lived in and wrote about Paris back when it was all sepia-toned (you know–Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and the like), and, yes, it references the Beat era bookstore City Lights (they consider it a sister store) back in San Francisco–but none of that really mattered at that moment to my kids.
What mattered to them was that if you climbed the rickety narrow stairs in the back (only room for someone going in one direction so you can get stuck waiting for a while and make sure you stop to listen to whoever’s playing the piano right near the bottom of the stairs because the guy playing that day was really GOOD), you reached not only the kids’ section, where there were new and used books of such randomness that you could poke through them forever and still keep finding unexpected new gems, but ALSO a reading room where anyone who wanted to could just sit and read.
That’s right, a room lined with sofas just when we needed it most. The kids grabbed some books and collapsed. They would happily have stayed there reading until it was time to eat dinner, only my husband has this weird compulsion to explore cities when we travel. (Even with his insistence we move on, my daughter still managed to finish an entire book before we left.)
The reading room is lined with full bookcase with signs that tell you you can look at the books and not buy them. Being tired and hungry, I told my kids I was annoyed that the books filling up the walls weren’t actually for sale–I felt a bit like I was in a restaurant and not allowed to swallow any of the food I was chewing. I definitely said it too loudly, and earned a much deserved nasty look from the guy who was working at a desk up there (maybe the owner? I was too scared after that to approach him).
When we were purchasing our books from the nice young Canadian woman downstairs, she informed me that the books that weren’t for sale were from private collections (she claimed many of them were from Simone de Beauvoir’s estate) and that even though they’re not for sale, people are welcome and even encouraged to read them in the store. And of course, once I was rested and fed, I realized what a wonderful thing that is: a great collection of books that everyone can have access to. My apologies to the man upstairs for my rude behavior. Honestly, I only behave like that when I’m really really tired.
We bought an enormous pile of books that day and, in a reasonably fair exchange, managed to leave my son’s brand new sweatshirt lying on one of those reading room sofas. Okay, that was unintentional (and annoying), but I like to think it was my son’s way of saying he really really wanted to go back before we left the city. And so we did.
Shakespeare & Company
37 rue de la Bûcherie
Tel : 00 33 (0) 1 43 25 40 93
Tags: Add new tag