Iconic Paris bookshop asks for help amid virus losses

Shakespeare & Co., the iconic Paris bookstore that published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922, is appealing to readers for support after pandemic-linked losses and France’s spring coronavirus lockdown put the future of the Left Bank institution in doubt.

The English-language bookshop on the Seine River sent an email to customers last week to inform them that it was facing “hard times” and to encourage them to buy a book. Paris entered a fresh lockdown on Oct. 30 that saw all non-essential stores shuttered for the second time in seven months.

“We’ve been [down] 80% since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the late proprietor George Whitman, said.

Since sending the email appeal, Whitman says she has been “overwhelmed” by the offers of help Shakespeare & Co. has received. There have been a record 5,000 online orders in one week, compared with around 100 in a normal week — representing a 50-fold increase.

Support has come from all walks of life: from lowly students to former French President Francois Hollande, who dropped by the bookshop overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral before the lockdown in response to the appeal.

Many Parisians contacted Whitman to donate to the bookshop — without wishing to purchase a book — and to share memories of falling in love there or even sleeping among its bookshelves.

“[My father] let people sleep in the bookshop and called them ‘tumbleweeds.’ We’ve had 30,000 people sleep in the bookshop,” Whitman said, adding that it was one way the shop founders encouraged writers to be creative. Indeed, the motto on the shop wall reads: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”

The outpouring of loyalty is perhaps unsurprising for the place often described as the world’s most famous independent bookshop. Founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919, Shakespeare & Co. became a creative hub for expatriate writers, including Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.

Reflecting on Beach’s decision to publish “Ulysses,” Joyce’s groundbreaking novel of more than 700 pages, Whitman said: “No one else dared publish it in full. … She became one of the smallest publishers of one of the biggest books of the century.”

Joyce used to call Beach’s bookstore “Stratford-upon-Odeon,” merging the shop’s street address with Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Irish writer would use it as an office.

“They all used her bookshop as a sanctuary,” Whitman said.

During World War II, as the shop’s story goes, Beach closed Shakespeare & Co. in 1941 after refusing to sell her last copy of Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” to a German Nazi officer. The bookstore reopened in a different guise in 1951, with a new address and owner — George Whitman. The rest is history.

Since last week’s email appeal, it’s not only Whitman’s daughter who has been overwhelmed. The bookstore’s website, run by a small team, has been overloaded with book orders and donations.

Sylvia Whitman looked to the past for a solution to her new problem.

Inspired by how the bookshop weathered the worldwide financial fallout from the Wall Street crash of 1929, she has set up a Friends of Shakespeare & Co. fund to collect donations.

“It is inspired by Sylvia Beach during the Great Depression, who had a difficult time, obviously. A lot of expats had to leave Paris, as it was too expensive, so she and her friends set up a Friends of Shakespeare & Co.,” Whitman said.

While the bookshop is a Paris institution, Whitman still maintains her eccentric and down-to-earth spirit that she seems to have inherited from her late father.

At several points in an interview with The Associated Press, Shakespeare & Co.’s resident dog, Colette, interrupted with barking. Whitman said it was because Colette had a strong opinion on certain matters.

Shakespeare & Co.’s financial troubles didn’t begin with the coronavirus pandemic. Paris in recent years has been a theater of calamities that caused lasting problems for small shops and businesses that rely on out-of-town visitors — from terrorist attacks and anti-government protests to the devastating April 2019 fire that closed Notre Dame Cathedral.

Like many independent stores, competition from online retailer Amazon has also cooled commerce, although Shakespeare & Co. has been shielded more than most booksellers by its fame.

Information for this article was contributed by Oleg Cetinic of The Associated Press.

A book of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, is displayed in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

A book of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, is displayed in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, checks her messages on her phone in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, checks her messages on her phone in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
A woman walks by the closed English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

A woman walks by the closed English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
The Notre Dame cathedral is reflected in a window of the closed English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

The Notre Dame cathedral is reflected in a window of the closed English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
A panel on "Emergency" by Rebecca Solnit hangs on the book shelves of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

A panel on “Emergency” by Rebecca Solnit hangs on the book shelves of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, sorts books in her shop in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, sorts books in her shop in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, attends an interview in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, attends an interview in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Employees sort books in the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Employees sort books in the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, posesin her shop in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. "We've been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we've used all our savings," Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop's co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English and American literature Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, posesin her shop in Paris, France, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2020. Iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. has launched a support appeal to its readers after its owners say that coronavirus-linked losses, and a crippling months-long lockdown, have left the future of the veritable institution in doubt. “We’ve been minus 80 percent since the first confinement in March, so at this point we’ve used all our savings,” Sylvia Whitman, daughter of the shop’s co-founder George Whitman, told the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

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