When I moved to Paris, one of the first places I went looking for a job was at Shakespeare & Company. I’m surprised they didn’t laugh me out of the shop.
The legendary bookshop attracts people from all over the world thanks, in part, to the Tumbleweeds program: when American George Whitman opened the shop in the 50s, he allowed writers and artists (including the Beat Poets) to live above the store in exchange for work, a tradition that has continued to this day. Aside from the Tumbleweeds, there are a few full-time employees who know what a good deal they’ve got; getting a job here is not an easy feat.
That said, it may be a bit easier now that Sylvia Beach Whitman (the daughter of the founder and the namesake of the woman whose original Shakespeare shop at Odéon inspired the name of this one) has opened a café. I’ve been meaning to try it, but I avoided it when it first opened in 2015 given the massive crowds.
I finally ducked in the other day – I’m glad I did.
The Shakespeare and Company Café is located right next to the antiquarian bookshop also owned by Shakespeare: exactly the way that George Whitman apparently wanted it, given the speech attributed to him in 1969 written out on the blackboard:
“I’m going to open a literary café. Everything will be cooked under my supervision. THere’s only one way to make a good lemon pie, you know. What I should do is go lock myself in a room and invent something like the safety pin. I’ve got to raise enough money to buy the store behind this one. Then we can knock out a wall, and the store will reach right back into the garden of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. Did you know that the oldest tree in Paris is growing there? Go and take a look. We’ll have a big opening Party. Everyone’s invited!”
A handful of things didn’t pan out quite as he wanted. For starters, the space directly behind the shop is still occupied, though the bookshop and café now take up the whole block and stretch to the corner, meeting the garden of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre from the side instead of from the back.
Secondly, the café opened four years after Whitman died in 2011, so he does not supervise the making of all the food (though I would have loved to try his lemon pie). Instead, Sylvia has entrusted Bob’s Bakeshop, owned and run by a fellow American, with her baked good, sandwich, and soup needs. (They even have a lemon pie, which I have yet to try.)
I did, however, try this distinctly un-French nori roll, made with mango, avocado, and brown rice. It was delicious and the perfect size for a midday snack that won’t make you sluggish.
The quiche of the day is served on a tray liner with the Proust Questionnaire printed on it, which is just all kinds of perfect.
The golden milk is perfectly good (I would say great, but I’ve just found my favorite in Paris – more on that another day.) I enjoyed it on a Saturday afternoon at one of the outdoor tables, taking advantage of the late winter sunshine overlooking Notre Dame (in part because there were no seats available inside).
I guess that’s the only thing that disappoints me about this place: because it’s so successful, it doesn’t really feel like a literary café.
Sure, there are books dotting the walls, but because of its popularity – and maybe because it’s right next door to the ever-more-popular Shakespeare bookshop – it’s always teeming, which means that sitting there to sip a coffee and read is nigh on impossible, unless you get there when it opens and stake out your spot (which I’ll admit I’ve done).
Still, it’s now an indelible part of the landscape of Parisian literary history, and it does boast beautiful views.
Shakespeare and Company Café – 37, rue de la Bûcherie, 75005