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The Famous Paris Bookstore Shakespeare and Company Finds Way to Stay Alive

David T. Valentin

Image taken from Wikipedia

With a second lockdown imminent in the United States, and several countries over in Europe moving in the same direction, it leaves us wondering what the state of some of our favorite local businesses will be after we come out of our homes this time. We’ve written about United States businesses struggling financially due to the pandemic, such as the legendary Strand Bookstore in New York City, the nonprofit LGBTQ+ organization Lambda Literary, and many others, like acupuncturists, needing to adapt their businesses accordingly.

Overseas, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, situated on the Left Bank of Paris, France, has been struggling to keep itself alive.

The bookstore is a historical piece of Paris’ history, similar to how The Strand is to New Yorkers. The original bookstore was founded 100 years ago on November 19th, 1919 by Sylvia Beach, a notable American bookseller and eventual publisher. Beach’s bookstore attracted some famous writers, such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, and many others. At the time, the bookstore only could support 200 subscriptions, each subscription being the price of 200 francs. Yet despite the small number of supporting subscriptions, the bookstore gained notable attention through French and American authors who frequented the bookstore for readings. 

Beach writes, “we were so glorious with all these famous writers and all the press we received that we began to do very well in business.”

The bookstore closed in 1941, due to the German occupation of Paris and unfortunately did nit reopen until 1951, when the bookstore was passed down to George Whitman. At the time, the bookstore was named “Le Mistral,” but was eventually renamed to what we know it as today The Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

Once again, the bookstore is threatened with closure, this time because of the financial pressures of the pandemic. 

In an email titled Letter from Paris, the company writers, “Two weeks ago we wrote to you letting you know that, since France’s first lockdown in March, sales at Shakespeare and Company were down 80%, and encouraging you to order from our website if you had the means to do so. We hadn’t dared imagine the outpouring of love and support that we would receive!”

Still, with travel still restricted and tourism and in-person visitations off limits for the bookstore that still wasn’t enough. That’s why Shakespeare and Company has created a new one-year membership program created to support the bookshop through the coming year.

“Membership starts at 45€ [which is about $53 right now] (a one-time payment through all of 2021). Along with your eternal gratitude, we’ll deliver—four times a year, straight to your inbox—a bit of the bookshop, made exclusively for members. To give a taste: This might include a reading from a celebrated author, a short story read by a book-loving actor, and new work from a leading poet.” More information is provided on their website of the different tiers of support you can pay for with each tiers respective reward.  

For example, bonus offers include two fabulous opportunities from the inimitable Dave Eggers and the brilliant Neil Gaiman. If you join Friends of Shakespeare and Company at the 500€ level (about $591) by November 15, you’ll be mailed a portrait sketch of yourself (or loved one) by Dave or a hand-drawn doodle by Neil!

The subscription takes inspiration from the book’s original founder, Sylvia Beach, and her subscription based membership during the Great Depression.

“To secure the future of her shop, Beach established ‘Friends of Shakespeare and Company.’ In exchange for an annual fee, participants were invited to members-only readings with T.S. Elliot, André Gide, Paul Valéry, and even Ernest Hemingway, who made an exception to his rule against public events.

As we can’t bring all our members to Paris and to the bookshop, we’re committed to bringing the bookshop to you.”

You can find the subscription and all its rewards here, as well as the full history of the bookstore.


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