In 1919 on 12 rue de l’Odéon, an American in Paris, named Sylvia Beach decided to open a bookstore. I can’t imagine that she knew at the time, the lasting impact she would have on thousands of writers for more than a century later. Le Mistral became a home away from home for struggling writers and a hangout for famous Americans like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald (sound like a familiar scene from Midnight in Paris?). She offered writers a place to stay, the occasional loan and provided inspiration to many. Ernest Hemingway referred to her in “ A Moveable Feast”, noting her kindness and generosity to strangers. The bookstore thrived until the Nazi’s occupied Paris. She was taken away in 1941 to an internment camp in in Vittel, passing away in 1962, in Paris. Sylvia would never open the store again but the story of Le Mistral does not end here.
In 1951, an old Algerian grocery store became the new home for Le Mistral . Another American, George Whitman, who had moved to Paris after serving in the US Army and attending the Sorbonne, decided to carry on in Sylvia’s footsteps. The new location on rue de la Bûcherie, along the famous left bank of the Seine, became a haven for a new generation of writers He opened his doors to starving artist, writers, actors, and poets. The agreement with George was in exchange for an overnight stay, each guest was expected to read at least 1 book a day, help stock bookshelves, and write their own autobiography. In 1964 on William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, he renamed the store to Shakespeare and Company.
Today it is estimated over 30,000 people have overnighted here including well known actors; Geoffrey Rush and Ethan Hawke. There are thousands of autobiographies of those who have passed through the doors. In 2006, George’s only daughter, Sylvia Whitman took over the daily operations of the store. He passed a few years later at the age of 98, leaving behind a legacy that will carry on for decades to come.
Each week, Shakespeare and Company hosts at least 1 free literary event and has also launched a publishing company. There is an online shop where you can order rare books, best sellers, children’s books and of course, merchandise toting the famous name. If your travels take you to Paris in 2021, be sure to stop in. The Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris continues to welcome people to come for the day or spend the night as long as you promise to read 1 book a day