More than a Bookshop …

I live in Palmerston North, work in one of the best Libraries in the Country (I believe), and I am in love with bookshops – in Paris. Not all bookshops in Paris – but several small independent ones I visited while on holiday there last year.

Could Shakespeare and Company, Tea and Tattered Pages, or The Red Wheelbarrow, be anywhere but Paris? For me at least, these three epitomised all that is charming and quirky, frustrating and irresistible to me about this magical city. Unmistakeably dishevelled and some might say just downright “disorganised”, I found all of them to be magical whimsical spaces.

The interior of Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Whitman from the Shakespeare and Company bookshop says “We are … disorganised and hope the writer and reader might find the right kind of electricity here…”

This iconic bookshop, located at 37, rue de la Bucherie is beside the Seine on the left bank opposite Notre Dame. There’s been a lot written about Shakespeare and Company –part bookshop, part community centre/backpackers hostel (I work with someone who remembers staying at Shakespeare and Co in the 1970s as a penniless traveller …), part haven for emerging artists and writers, part publishing house, part literary event centre, the original shop was opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919. (Beach is perhaps most famous for publishing James Joyces Ulysses before any other publisher would touch it.) Closed during WW2, George Whitman opened his shop, named after Beach’s famous bookstore, in 1951 and his daughter Sylvia still runs it today.

Shakespeare and Company – courtyard entrance

Shakespeare and Company in charming disarray

This was not only my favourite bookshop, but my favourite place in the whole of Paris. Many of you I am sure will know it.

Me on the stairway with writers wall Shakespeare and Company

The shop itself is really 2 shops – Antiquarian Bookshop, and Main Bookshop. It is tiny –a quirky literary tree-house (complete with ladder – well a rickety staircase really – and a delightful writers wall of fame depicting the likes of Anais Nin, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller amongst others).

Sylvia Whitman in an article in Paris Magazine talks about “… the topsy turvy aspect of the walls surrounding you and the towers of toppling books that may even drop the unexpected into your hands.”

For me it felt just like that. And a few books DID in fact drop into my hands..

Like Paris itself, Shakespeare and Company is olde worlde without being old fashioned. Interested in the past, it is also very much focussed on the future. The place is buzzing with posters advertising upcoming book launches, meetings, readings, literary festivals and prizes etc etc … it really does feel like THE place in Paris to find out what’s happening in a literary sense.

Syliva Whitman explains, “All of this is to create a living space for books, and to invite you to enjoy something local, personal and real. As my father says, the book business is the business of life”. (Sylvia Whitman, Issue #4, Paris Magazine, June 2010. Read the whole article here)

On to the Red Wheelbarrow bookshop (22, rue St Paul, Marais) where books also overflowed – from every surface in no obvious predetermined arrangement. And here there was no “hard sell” – in fact quite the opposite!

Red Wheelbarrow

When my friend and I visited we were asked to leave shortly after arriving because the shop-owner had to take her young school-age daughter out to lunch. Could we come back in about 2 ½ hours?

Eventually we got to spend a happy afternoon not only browsing the book stock but enjoying the company and easy conversations amongst the bookshop community.

I can’t say much about the last bookshop I wanted to mention – but I can show you (see my photo – below).

Tea and Tattered pages

Fuelled by the promise of tea and cake and reasonably priced (for Paris!) second-hand English language books, we visited Tea and Tattered Pages – twice in fact – and both times it was … closed!. At 24, rue Mayet, Montparnasse it was tucked away off the main tourist route – and we managed to get ourselves lost both times we visited. We did learn that in Paris maps and advertised opening hours are not always what they seem! Anyway, we had to admit defeat on this one, and after noting the old books stacked tantalisingly in the window in their candy striped (albeit worn) boxes with promising 2 and 3 euro price tags, and saying hi to a ginger cat sleeping in the window (he had absolutely no intention of letting us in), we headed off.

Happily by the time I headed home stashed in my luggage I had some Hemingway (a 2nd hand copy of The Old Man and the Sea), Sagan (Bonjour Tristesse), Colette (The Pure and the Impure) and Dorothea Lasky (Poetry is not a Project) – all with their own tale to tell.

On that note, enjoy the photos and if you’re ever in Paris, you know where to head .

By Philippa Elphick, New Zealand and Pacific Islands Librarian at Palmerston North City Library. Palmerston North City Library has a blog too – read it here.

Keen to write a guest blog post? Email Emma at info [at]


2 thoughts on “More than a Bookshop …

  1. That was so interesting to read and has left me feeling quite…………………………’jealous’ I think the word might be! LOL. Wow and in Paris, just the thought of browsing those bookshops in such a romantic place makes me want to win lotto rather badly 🙂

    Helen D

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