Shakespeare and Company - My Family Travels

An American Bookshop, a Canadian Bar, and the Left Bank Ex-pat

Paris, or at least a certain Paris, is endlessly creaky.  It’s winding and poorly lit, and so much the better. It is this Paris that the American student dreams of, and no living institution embodies it like Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Shakespeare and Co. may be above all a romantic meeting ground, but it has bonafide literary chops- its founder, George Whitman, was named an Officer of the Academy of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture in 2006. Like any good ex-pat establishment, it’s social as well as intellectual, a meeting-place for far-flung Anglophones young and old.

So too is another Left Bank locale, just as well-known as Shakespeare and Co. (among students abroad), and just as poorly lit. The Moose is a Canadian Bar in a district known for its old-world swank, and perhaps the only place in Paris where hockey and college football are given preference over soccer on the jumbo screens. It was there that I found out my Nebraska Cornhuskers had made the conference championship, and there that my allegiance was roundly insulted.

The Moose and Shakespeare and Co. represent two forms of ex-patriotism whose differences can’t be measured by BAC levels alone. The two are distinguished by the ways in which they manifest the paranoia particular to ex-pat hangouts. The Moose is eager to ground itself spatially, overt and unbearable in its Canadian-ness. One feels its fear of infiltration by any “foreign” operatives (an ironic fear, of course, for a Canadian bar in Paris). The Moose must establish itself as not just fratty but obstinately fratty, a snobnosed blockhead surrounded by squares.

Shakespeare and Co. seems charged with the opposite task. But the Latin Quarter is no slouch intellectually- it’s been the stomping ground of writers from Hemingway to Camus. Nor is the bookshop’s paranoia predominantly spatial- founded by an American but named for a Brit, the shop’s décor mixes quotes by Walt Whitman and Dr. Samuel Johnson. What Shakespeare and Co. must fend off is time, that most irascible opponent. It’s not alone, standing in an 800 year-old neighborhood in the shadow of Notre-Dame, a 650 year-old church. But its current neighbor, a chic restaurant, has lobbied to order the bookshop to redo its rundown façade. To continue attracting misty-eyed ex-pats, Shakespeare and Co. must laugh boldly in the face of change, or else beg gently on creakèd knee.

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