Shakespeare and Company is an American bookshop on Paris’s Left Bank. A former monastery for Notre Dame Cathedral, it has been a center of Paris literary life since the 1950s, thanks to the late George Whitman, the bookstore’s eccentric, bohemian founder. Since it opened, thousands of writers and artists, from Allen Ginsberg to Rachel Antonoff, have lived at Shakespeare and Company for free, working in the shop during the day and transforming its benches and lofts into the Tumbleweed Hotel at night. You can’t make a reservation at the Tumbleweed—the only way to get a spot is to show up at the store, track down George’s daughter, Sylvia, and ask. I did so twice this year, in January and June. The first bunch of these photos is from January.
A writer’s nook for visitors to the store.
At night in the store, people sleep in lofts and cozy alcoves like this one.
Another good sleeping spot: this loft in the curtained-off children’s section. Legend has it that Tumbleweed residents used to nap up there during store hours, scaring the children when they emerged.
Getting into bed.
Above the shop, in George’s old quarters, is the writers’ studio.
Visitors like to play the piano.
Portraits of literary heroes in the stairwell.
A bed in the Sylvia Beach Memorial Library, a free reading library on the bookstore’s second story, named in honor of the founder of the first Shakespeare and Company bookshop and the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Photos in the rafters show Sylvia, the current owner, as a child, and George, her father.
Tumbleweeds residents have access to an upstairs kitchen.
The store in its winter-holiday gear.
The rest of this album is from my second stay at Shakespeare and Company, in June.
Stained glass in the front till references one of George’s favorite quotations, from William Butler Yeats: “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
The shop prepares to host the ceremony where the Paris Literary Prize will be awarded. (This year’s winner was Body Electric by C.E. Smith.)
Kitty, the bookshop cat (named for Anne Frank’s diary friend), descends from George’s apartment to observe the bookstore. City Lights Books is the name of a San Francisco bookshop founded by the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was a friend of George’s.
The front room of the Sylvia Beach Memorial Library early in the morning.
George’s rules for the Tumbleweeds still hold true: In order to stay there you must work in the shop, read a book a day, and write an autobiography (and include a picture) before you leave.
The autobiographies might be the best part of Tumbleweeding. You get a sense of the huge community of writers and travelers in the world, and feel closely connected to people you’ve never met.
Kitty among the Tumbleweed archives. The binders contain thousands of single-page autobiographies by all of the shop’s temporary residents, from the 1950s to now.
My friend Sita playing with Colette, the bookstore’s black dog.
Visitors leave notes on the “Mirror of Love” in the children’s section.
After closing, the staff and Tumbleweeds like to put on music and dance (which always surprises the tourists outside). Favorite songs in June were “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” by the Talking Heads and “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac.
When it’s open, the store is usually too packed to move. But at night it becomes the world’s coolest private library. As a Tumbleweed walking through the shop, you always feel this tension between ownership and sharing. Hundreds of people sit on my bed every day, not even knowing that anyone sleeps there (or that they could sleep there for free, too). But the store’s magic comes from the way it shows that all the best experiences are shared. ♦
Molly Dektar is a writer and photographer from North Carolina. You can find many more photos on her blog.