Shakespeare and Company has weathered many storms, but the pandemic has been the most devastating of them all.
For over a century the legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Company has beamed out from the Left Bank of Paris like a lighthouse of literature.
The former 16th-century monastery on Rue de la Bûcherie, and its previous site not far away at 12 Rue de l’Odéon, has been a home away from home for the Lost Generation in the 1920s and the Beatnik generation in the 1950s, a publisher and reading resource for the likes of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, and shelter for the estimated 30,000 “tumbleweeds”—young writers and enthusiasts allowed to stay for free—over the years.
But the economic disaster wrought by the coronavirus pandemic has hit independent bookstores in France, including this timeless Anglophone institution, hard. Deemed “non-essential” by the government even during the country’s second lockdown, they were forced to close to in-person customers, while commerce for online behemoths like Amazon has soared. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo herself warned city-goers: “Don’t buy on Amazon. Amazon is the death of our bookshops and our neighborhood life.”
It led to an extraordinary announcement by Shakespeare and Company at the end of October in which it spoke of “hard times” caused by the pandemic, pleading for “new website orders from those of you with the means and interest to do so.”
Between March and the end of October, it said revenue was down 80% on the previous year. According to Adam Biles, an author, and events manager at the bookshop, it’s been the culmination of years of lower sales. “The attacks in 2015 had quite a big impact on the number of visitors coming to Paris and, of course, a large proportion of our clientèle is visitors to Paris, whether that be tourists or overseas students,” he says.
“Then obviously last year there was a rainy day with the Notre Dame fire. It had a big impact on the area. Notre Dame featured on so many people’s itineraries. So there was a dip in business. Then the first lockdown, from the middle of March to the middle of May. During that time, we didn’t really sell books online then because the Union of French Booksellers asked booksellers not to. Their argument was that it’s not fair to bookshops that didn’t have that capacity, so we agreed in solidarity.”
But Shakespeare and Company’s callout led to a vast deluge of support from the literary world and so many online orders—a record 5,000 in one week, compared to the average 100—that the website crashed several times over the course of a few days and the owners had to temporarily refuse any more orders to catch up with the demand.
“I don’t know if we were being naive, but I don’t think we were quite expecting the response that we got,” adds Biles. “We assumed it would be more or less manageable. But we found that the number of orders we got was too much, we can’t operate at that level going into the future. Ultimately, we are not Amazon.”
However, while digging through Shakespeare and Company’s archives, Krista Halverson, head of the bookstore’s publishing arm and editor of a history of the bookstore, uncovered a potential solution that dates back to the Great Depression. Under Sylvia Beach, who ran the first iteration of the store, a membership scheme was launched called Friends of Shakespeare and Company, which saw 200 patrons pay for annual memberships as economic strains took their toll.
Back then, André Gide, Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot were among those to contribute by doing readings for the patrons. From the start of 2021, Shakespeare and Company of today will offer virtual tours, book clubs, interviews with authors, and readings to those who can support it in the age of COVID-19. “Essentially, the idea is to bring people to the bookshop from wherever they are in the world,” says Biles.
For many, it has left an unforgettable impression. Jennifer Hayden first visited Paris as an 18-year-old in 2002 and also slept within its walls. “I learned about the tumbleweeds as these sort of mythical creatures,” she says. “No one back then would really divulge if the rumors were true or not, you had to find out for yourself. Even in the wide field of small independent bookstores, there is something that sets Shakespeare’s apart from others.”
Tom Hodges tumbleweeded for six months across 2012 and 2013. “There was all the usual drinking red wine by the Seine,” he says. “Some of my best memories would be from when we put on a production of Much Ado About Nothing in front of the shop with various volunteers and tumbleweeds. We fed the audience Pimms in advance, which I think kept them on our good side.”
In the future, Biles says that to maintain independent bookstores around the world, supporters must “keep reading, keep loving literature, and keep buying”—whether in the coming months or beyond the pandemic. With already high-profile closures of Boulinier and Gibert-Jeune in Paris and The Strand in New York City, he says, it is “more important than ever.”
But in Shakespeare and Company’s membership model, a regular source of income that others may seek to replicate is perhaps a concept that aligns with what George Whitman, founder of the second iteration, envisaged when he once famously spoke of the shop as a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”