It is not always that I turn my vacation into literary ones; for one, my companions aren’t always as enthusiastic about books and their allied magic as I am and for two, I don’t undertake solo trips.
But whenever I travel with my mamma, I know I can deviate from the customary and venture into the less-traversed. She understands my loves and my passions, my keenness to sample something that I might or might not comprehend in full. She nods amiably her head at my outings, hopping on trains and stomping on concrete walkways, getting herself tired but almost saying, “I knew you would do this.”.
So, when I happened to visit Paris recently with her, I visited two places I had marked already. Here, I am talking about the first one.
Every bibliophile (well, almost) has heard about ‘Shakespeare and Company’. This independent bookstore, which opened its door on 19.11.1919, quickly became a meeting place of writers who went on to chart history. The store shifted to a new address in 1921, where it remained till 1941, and it is here that the likes of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald spent generous hours mulling on, perhaps, their (soon-to-become) masterpieces. In 1941, it moved to a third location and it is here that it presently operates from.
I visited this store on 10th June, 2017, during the evening hours. As I was rather famished (although it may not be wrong to say a lot of it got satiated upon one look at the store), we made our way to the café first. The S&Co. Café stands adjacent to the bookstore and has its own, quaint charm to it. It has both indoor and outdoor seating, and we chose the former. Amid an ambience of books, mugs and pretty, petite creepers, they serve home-made tea and flavoured lemonades, cakes, pies, salads and the likes.
When I enquired about the contents of the cake, as my mother is a vegetarian, the man at the counter quickly disappeared under the display shelf and emerged with a recipe book in his hand. Then, of course, with disappointment, he informed me that all the patisserie items contain egg. Did I need a salad? Did he think I would skip eating? Well, who knows? But I did order one for myself.
And voila! I get a tray with the Proust Questionnaire underneath! I spent the next few minutes explaining my mamma, gleefully, what was the smoke (and fire) around the Proust Questionnaire. And all this while, I kept stealing a glance at the other tables to see if they got one too, or is it just me, who by some blind-to-self-visible-to-others (remember Johari Window?) demeanour, gave away that Proust was my favorite author? Ah! I never got to see other trays – you see, the thing about bibliophiles is that they hoard over the empty spaces on their trays; either with a book or a notebook, or a marker, or… well, you got it, right?
So, I hogged away to glory and having rejuvenated well, entered the bookstore. There are two stores actually; one is the regular bookstore and the other, the antiquarian one. Needless to say, the latter housed exclusive copies, first-editions, hand-written notes and the likes, and costed a bomb. For example, a copy of Ulysses – First Edition by Odyssey Press, published in 1932, was available for 300 euros. And a 1924 edition, published by Shakespeare & Company, was at a whopping 2500 euros! Oh it was a pleasure to browse though – the myriad colours, the preserved spines, the autumn aura, the delicate wings, the intoxicating smell; they all added to the allure of this one-of-a-kind store. And having filled my lungs with this rich breeze from the corridors of literary giants, I advanced to the adjacent, regular book store.
The first thing that I noticed was a note on the side wall of the entrance, informing the visitors that photography inside the store was prohibited. This could not happen now, could it? Sigh. Now how do I capture what was awaiting me? Hmmmm… may be, in my heart. And mind. And that is what I did. Once I stepped in, the gleaming and teeming line of books showed up under dim lights like a streak of twinkling stars on an azure, sprightly sky. The interiors are done in a series of small rooms, each leading to another, in a honey-comb like structure, without any doors separating them. There are two levels. The stocking in each room is dominated by a genre, starting right from literary fiction, non-fiction, humor, biographies to romance, sci-fi, humor and thriller. There are sections for children, graphic novels and poetry too. On the upper floor, there are publications of yesteryear and thesis books of prominence. I suppose there is something for everyone here.
One of the most endearing characters of the store lies in the little notes that are stuck across the bookstore. In the thriller/ suspense section, I found – “Sherlock Holmes is beneath the table” and “Agatha Christie is by the stairs” and that is precisely where the books from those series were stocked! 🙂
One is also unlikely to miss these stimulating messages all around the store:
When I reached the far end of the room to the west side, one gentleman manning the counter was saying in a caustic tone, “Please take back your credit card; I am not selling you anything. You don’t know NEIL GAIMAN!” I was taken aback a little. And then without losing a second, he eased up, pulling a little sheet and scribbling something on it, handed over to the buyer and said, ‘Check these titles out and let me know what catches your fancy the next time you come here.’ And shifting happily in his stool, he opened his palm again to receive the credit card for billing.
It is possible that on your visit, you might catch a little cat. During mine, I saw her sleeping on the upper floor, with a sign hung over her: “The cat is exhausted after excessive reading. Please let her sleep.” The French have a thing about cats; they still do.
Another endearing opportunity this store provides is accommodation. Yes, you can stay here, in exchange of some work – sorting the books, arranging them in the store, etc. I wouldn’t mind dusting too if I got to have a night to stay in there. But sigh, I didn’t give into that adventurous streak this time.
But I ended up buying three books, Pleasure and Days, Germinal and Shakespeare’s Strangest Tales, along with a souvenir bag from the store. The store’s Proust section is right next to the entry counter and that was too much for a Proustian fan.
After browsing for a good 110 minutes, I emerged to see my Mamma waiting patiently outside, at the Café. I hurried to her and apologized profusely, saying I didn’t realize the time and I am sorry she had to wait so long.
She smiled and said: “You are early.”
[Images of the store’s interiors courtesy literaryhub.com and instidy.com]