First, A Background Story
Back in July of 2015, I studied abroad for the first time. I was in London for a week and a half, Oxford for half a week, and Paris for two weeks. London was fun, things started to go downhill in Oxford pretty quickly, and Paris was difficult, to say the least. I was largely struggling because of a lack of privacy and quiet, and there wasn’t much of anything I could do about it.
I did have one place to spend time by myself, though — that place was where the beautiful bookstore Shakespeare and Company is located.
Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookstore in Paris located pretty close to Notre Dame. This bookstore is very special for a number of reasons. For one thing, the bookstore has been a popular place for writers — it houses aspiring writers and artists in exchange for help around the store. Writers like Allen Ginsburg and Langston Hughes have been fed and housed while working on their craft.
The first floor of the bookstore is the actual bookstore — books are shelved from floor to ceiling, stacked on tables, stacked on the floor, placed on banisters, and shoved into every nook and cranny for you to peruse and purchase. There isn’t a lot of room to walk around when its packed — after a certain amount of people have entered the store, they make you wait outside until others leave so that they don’t go past capacity and pack everyone together like sardines — so oftentimes you’re right next to other book lovers who are also getting lost in the shelves. There’s a little donation manhole-type place on the floor where you can donate to help aspiring artists and writers. I dropped a two euro coin in there.
And then there’s the second floor. The second floor is the library. And I have two words for you: Bookstore. Cat.
This sweet little white cat was Kitty. He was old at the time I visited, and less than two months later, in September of 2015, he passed away. He lived in the bookstore, and especially later in his life he mostly stayed upstairs because it was more quiet up in the library than downstairs in the bookstore. To no one’s surprise, when I went to spend a day up in the library myself I spent a solid half an hour petting him before doing anything else. (I had been away from home for three weeks — I was a BIT cat-deprived by that point.)
The library has a significantly different tone than the bookstore — it is far more quiet. The library is where the little mattresses for artists and writers are located, and there are also a number of comfy chairs, a bunch of old manual typewriters, and a piano. There are books lining the shelves; they aren’t to be removed from the library, but visitors are welcome to take them off the shelves and sit and read in the library for as long as they wanted. I pulled a copy of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything off the shelf (I’d read it about eight years before in early high school because my history teacher lent it to me — it had a strange familiarity despite being 5000 miles from home, and I was drawn to it), sat down in a rocking chair next to the piano, and read the first half of it. Occasionally people would come by and play the piano; I heard some extremely talented musicians play while I was there. Sometimes kids would want to try it, and one child was far more skilled than any adult I’d heard all day. I read, I journalled, I said my goodbyes to Kitty, and (after buying some more books because I couldn’t resist) I said my goodbyes to that bookstore. I haven’t been there in years, but it’s still without a doubt my favorite place on this planet.
I brought some of it home with me, though — that stack of books in the next picture? I brought exactly four of those to Europe with me from the US. The majority of them were purchased at Shakespeare and Company. You ever left the country with 4 books and brought back home 22? I have…
When I was in the Netherlands in August and September 2017, I almost went back. I couldn’t do it, though — the thing was that it would cost me about $200 to make a day trip to Paris, and I really didn’t want to go for anything other than Shakespeare and Company (where I knew I would spend probably the same amount…). It wasn’t something I could afford at the time, so I didn’t make it. I still plan on going back someday, but I don’t know when that will be.
Fast-fowarding to November 2017…
If you can’t bring the kid to the bookshop, bring the bookshop to the kid, right?
It sounds impossible, and yet they managed to do it. In late November of 2017, the bookstore’s newsletter (which of COURSE I subscribe to — I still want to hear about my favorite bookstore every month even if I can’t visit!) announced the 2018 Shakespeare and Company Year of Reading — a book box subscription that delivers twelve staff-picked books to your doorstep throughout the year. Books are hand-selected with a note from the staff, and the box is filled with other goodies from the bookshop. Boxes will be shipped in February, May and September.
And did I sign up? Fuck yeah, I did.
The first box (the February box) arrived on Friday this past week, and rarely have I ever been so excited to open a package.
And Now… The Box!
Getting this box was even more similar to visiting the bookstore than I’d anticipated — my own library cat (Coco!) was just as excited about the box as I was.
Five books came in the box. They were actually only supposed to do four (four each box for a total of twelve for the year), but they included a copy of How Should One Read A Book? by Virginia Woolf as a special bonus!
This little chapbook is so pretty! The blue portrait and the yellow title covers are separate from each other, and the paper is a high-quality speckled paper. I just love it.
And the best part of opening it up? The stamp. All of my books that I brought home with me from Paris were hand-stamped in front of me in the bookstore. I’m so happy to get new books with the stamp again.
I also got a poetry chapbook — The Territory is Not the Map by Brazilian poet Marilia Garcia. These poems are a commentary on the concept of space and our surroundings — and the really cool part is that the book itself is bilingual. I love that they included the poems in both their original form and their translated form in English.
Opening the book up, I found the coveted stamp — and a surprise! A hand-typewritten poem, Emily Dickinson’s “To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave,” was tucked inside the cover. Sarah, one of the shop’s Tumbleweeds (what the visitors who are housed in the shop have come to be known as) typed it and the other poems I received up.
One word about this bookmark: Kitty.
“Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” is the shop’s motto — it’s painted here above the door to the first floor reading room.
The next book has a blindingly bright green cover! Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado tells strange stories about the female body that play with the myths and realities surrounding them. It sounds like a really interesting read!
I got a poem in this one, too — “Colour” by Christina Rossetti. Rossetti is one of my favorite poets, and I absolutely love the play with the red and black typewriter ink colors here! Tumbleweed Sarah must have had a lot of practice — there’s no way I could make a poem look this beautiful with a typewriter.
I love how the bookmarks show ordinary moments in various parts of the bookshop — they’re simple, and yet they bring me back there every time I look at them.
Next is In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses by Christoph Ribbat. Linda, the bookstore staff member who annotated this one, says it reads a lot like a thriller. Thrillers and restaurants and cooking? Yes, please!
I love how all of these books have a perfect spot on the title page for the stamp — it’s almost as if they were designed especially for it! I got another poem as well — “Listening” by Amy Lowell. This is the only poem I received that I wasn’t already at least vaguely familiar with, and I don’t think a better new poem could have been picked for me. I connected with the musical and nature themes deeply, and it was perfect.
And, of course, the bookmark showing the outside of the store on an ordinary day with a smattering of visitors outside. The blossoms are a nice touch. It really is beautiful.
One of President Obama’s 2017 books of the year, the last book, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, was a special treat. I always read the annotations by the staff members before opening the book up to look at the stamp…
…and to my delight, this copy is both stamped and signed by the author. This is, without a doubt, a very special book.
As an extra surprise, “The Human Seasons” by John Keats was tucked inside this one. Keats is my favorite poet, so getting this poem was a real treat for me. All the poems I received were just perfect for me, but this one knocked it out of the park.
Coco decided she wanted to join in on the fun as I attempted to take a photo of the next bookmark…
This is the staircase I had to climb to get up to the library when I visited for the day. Each step contains a few words of a quote by the poet Hafiz — “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” It’s almost like I’m there again.
Coco was really excited about Exit West. I could hardly get her away from it.
I also got a sticker that reads “Who needs poetry.” Coco decided that she wanted to become a model, so she posed with the sticker for a few pictures. I think she thinks she needs poetry.
Finally, I received a tote bag with a photo of the doorway to the first floor reading room. I collect tote bags from bookstores, and this is my third from Shakespeare and Company now. (I bought a large, high-quality one, and then I got another one for free after spending like $180 on books all at once and the staff person decided to toss it in free because I’d bought a lot of stuff. This was about the point where I started learning there was a certain threshold you could pass in a bookstore where they’ll give you a tote bag if you spend so much — this also worked in Powell’s. I’m still testing this theory.)
This bag is going to get a LOT of use out of it. I already took it to the library with me today while I was picking up a hold. I adore it already, and I can’t wait to take it places!
A Little Pretty Packaging…
As a bonus, here are the wrappings that my books showed up in that I’m really going to struggle to throw away eventually:
The little blue paper bag with the Groucho Marx quote on it held the Virginia Woolf book on its own — the other books came in the other paper bag. I believe they wanted to make it really clear that this was a bonus book, so they wrapped it separately from the other ones.
The red paper bag with the Lord Byron quote is quite a bit bigger (after all, it did have four books and a tote bag inside of it).
And then there’s the cardboard box with the Louisa May Alcott quote. This is going to be hard for me to recycle eventually, but while I can probably get away with stashing away the paper bags for a while, it’s really not realistic for me to keep a whole cardboard box for the quote. I’m going to struggle with this for a while.
And in the End?
I had to just sit and appreciate the contents of this box for a while after opening it. This isn’t a book box that has a lot of extra goodies like candles and mugs and tea and such, but the bookmarks and the poems and the stamp alone were enough to make this box mean more to me beyond the books that were inside of it. It felt like some of that “home” I’d found in Paris had made its way to Oregon just for me. I am absolutely delighted beyond belief that this little piece of my little Paris bookshop came home to me.
It’ll be May before I get the next box, and I am even more excited for it now than I was when I signed up for the Year of Reading. One of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I feel at home again.