In 1951, an eccentric American named George Whitman opened a bookstore with the hope of creating a literary hub in the heart of Paris.
Whitman, a fervent communist, decided he would welcome all writers needing a place to stay in Paris as his own personal guests at the bookstore. Painted over an inner door is the bookshop’s motto “be kind to strangers lest they be angels in disguise,” an endearing welcome for all those with a heart astray.
The requirements are simple. On a first-come, first-serve basis, these guests—whom Whitman dubbed the “Tumbleweeds”—must write a biography and help out for an hour or two a day around the bookstore. With 13 beds concealed as bookshelves during the day, Shakespeare and Company have become a utopia for the wanderlust-stricken traveler, looking for a place to stay in Paris. Whitman calls the bookstore “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.”
Today, over 50 years later, Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, has taken over the day-to-day management of the store, but the Tumbleweed tradition still lives on with as many as 40,000 people having slept in the shop over the years.
Regular activities that occur in the bookshop are Sunday tea, poetry readings, and writers’ meetings. In the 1950s, the shop served as a base for many of the writers of the Beat Generation, such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. Years later the adjacent building was purchased by Shakespeare & Co., and now functions as a café and bistro featuring literature-themed menu items to budding writers.
The library has also been featured in Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunset (2004) and in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011).