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Shakespeare and Company, one of Paris’ landmarks and beloved by readers and historians around the world, published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922, when other publishers wouldn’t and closed during World War Two after refusing to sell beloved books to Nazi customers.
Now suffering under the constraints of France’s second lockdown, put into place on 30 October, when all non-essential businesses were forced to close, the bookstore’s sales are down by 80% and the owner has been using up all of her savings.
After sending an email to its customers telling them it was facing “hard times”, it encouraged them to buy a book. Usually it receives 100 orders a week–last week, it got 5,000 online orders. Some were from students with little money, wanting to support one of the world’s most famous English-language bookshops. One order was from former president François Hollande.
Founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919, Shakespeare & Company faces the river Seine and one of Paris’ most visited landmarks, the cathedral of Notre Dame. The legend is that during World War II, Beach refused to sell the last copy of Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” to a German Nazi officer and closed the bookshop in 1941.
A new owner, George Whitman, took the name to its current address and reopened in 1951. Whitman also encouraged up-and-coming writers, allowing them to sleep inside the bookstore, when they couldn’t afford to sleep elsewhere.
He used to call these people “tumbleweeds” and the current owner, his daughter, Silvia Whitman, estimates that about 30,000 people have slept inside its walls, as reported by AP. The shop’s motto, as written on its wall, reads “be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”
It became the de facto office of many expatriate authors such as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.
France is a big lover of books–it has the most Nobel Prize-winners in Literature and lots of prime time book review shows. Most aren’t as fortunate as Shakespeare and Company and are struggling in the lockdown against giants such as Amazon and are pleading with the French government for help.
Whitman said this week, “I find it really tiring that the bigger you are the more you can ignore laws, you can avoid taxes, you can find loopholes. The smaller you are, the more expensive and the more complicated things are.”
Just before the lockdown, France’s publishers’ association, the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE), joined with its booksellers’ association, the Syndicat de la Librairie Française (SLF), and authors’ group, the Conseil Permanent des Ecrivains (CPE), in a call for books to be considered essential services.
In a joint statement called “Lire, c’est vivre” (to live is to read) they said, “leave our bookstores open so that social confinement does not also become cultural isolation.”
The French Economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, responded in a statement on November 5 that the French government would cover the costs of delivery fees for independent bookshops during confinement (the French word for lockdown) in order to “help them continue trading through online sales”.