The Tumbleweeds of Shakespeare & Co

Margaux Thompson

There is a handful of English bookshops in Paris, for those who know where to find them. Those two that are on the same street, on the same rue. The one hidden in the typical cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter, between a church and a museum. Another one behind the Luxembourg gardens, down the streets toward the Odéon. Yet none of them are as famous as the one standing in the shadows of Notre-Dame, the one with yellow and green lettering. The one known as Shakespeare and Company. 

When George Whitman bought the shop, it was already an established anglophone bookshop called Le Mistral. After acquiring the place, he was left with little to no money to live and therefore slept on a pull-out couch in the shop, a bed that he insisted on giving up whenever a writer came by needing a place to stay. This, it seems, might have emerged from the popular crowd that frequented the original Shakespeare and Co. It prided itself on having received the visit of authors like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, and Pound. The first shop was opened by Sylvia Beach, a few streets away from the shop we now know, but was shut down during the Second World War. Following her example, Whitman opened a shop that welcomed authors from around the world that were lost and needed a place to stay. As the man described himself as a ‘tumbleweed’, pushed around by the wind, the name was given to whomever chose to stay at the shop.

Since then, years have passed and generations of what are now called Tumbleweeds have spent a night, a few weeks and sometimes months in the free accommodation provided by the bookshop. All George Whitman asked for in exchange for that service was for the lost writers to “read a book a day”, “help out in the shop for a couple of hours, and write a single-page autobiography for [his] archives”. The little bookshop has housed an estimated number of 30,000 tumbleweeds since the shop first opened, a tradition that has been upheld even after George Whitman passed away in 2011. 

So, if any of you are ever lost writers, wandering the world and finding yourself in Paris with no money, but the desire to stay in one of world’s most famous bookshops, maybe try Shakespeare and Co. There are worse places to write than with a view on Notre-Dame, shelves stacked full of old books and Aggie the cat purring on your lap.