Read A trip to a real-life Little Paris Bookshop by Hugo Bennett

A trip to a real-life Little Paris Bookshop

by the winner of our 2015 competition with Stylist Magazine and Shakespeare & Co

Hugo Bennett

Joie de livres – Shakespeare’s wonderful Parisian outpost

I suppose competition winners must broadly fall into two categories: those who have tasted competition victory before and those who have never won so much as second prize in a two horse race. In this case, the winner of Little Brown’s ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ competition belonged firmly in the latter.

My mother – serial competition-enterer, perennial non-winner – had her victory at last. An overnight trip to Paris for a tour of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop with a €50 voucher to spend. And she was allowed to take a plus one. Mother of the Year Award judges take note, she asked me to accompany her.

I had never been to Paris (yes, sacré bleu and all that), so my level of excitement was considerable. Once there, I tried my best to not constantly finish sentences with “which is actually quite different to London, isn’t it?” I’m sorry to report that success was limited and a new-found admiration for my mother’s patience discovered.

But it was a sensational trip. A trip that, bathed in glorious early summer sunshine, showed off the myriad delights and idiosyncrasies Paris has to offer. And a trip where I could simply spend time in my brilliant mother’s company. But it was not without its drama. Not quite summer-blockbuster-flying-dinosaurs-run-for-it-stupid cinematic drama, but the adrenaline did flow. More on that later.

We were staying at the Grand Hôtel des Balcons in the 6th Arrondissement, an enviable central location from which to explore. Rachel from Little Brown – the very diligent and lovely organiser of our trip – had arranged for us to meet Laura from Shakespeare and Company on the afternoon of the second day, so we had ample time to explore beforehand.

The first day saw us pootle along the banks of the Seine, heading west. Starting from Notre Dame, a cathedral of breathtaking stature and spiritual feeling, we ambled across the Pont Neuf to the Louvre. We had toyed with the idea of heading down into the museum, but the hour and a half queuing time to get in cleared that up. No matter, for the stunning nature of the glass pyramids set against the 12th century palace was quite something to behold. As the sunlight struck the glass a shimmering refraction was thrown up against the ancient palace walls: a fitting connection between the old and new. Pictures do it no justice whatsoever, though this did not stop tourists from taking them. A popular pose involved an attempt at perspective disruption as the photographee pretended to pinch the top of the largest pyramid. Much hilarity was enjoyed in the process for reasons that remain unclear.

Onwards then to the Pompidou Centre, a building that has managed to regurgitate much of its inner workings and create a stunningly imaginative presence in the Beaubourg area of the 4th Arrondissement. After taking a quick pit stop in the bar we headed home for dinner via le Marais, which although being an historically and architecturally significant district, will be better remembered for the taxidermy shop we encountered. In the window were all manner of stupefied creatures and foremost amongst them sat an enormous and very regal-looking tiger. Slightly sadly, we imagined he might have originally come for tea, but not yet had the opportunity to leave.

A final footnote to Wednesday requires a mention of the church of Saint-Sulpice, which we stumbled across in the twilight. It is an astonishing tribute to human industry, powerfully soaring up to the heavens as locals sip coffee at the cafés in its shadows.

Thursday arrived with the sun promising to drive the mercury even higher. Setting off early we made the pilgrimage up to Sacré-Cœur, at the summit of Montmatre. It’s funny how looking over a city from height and distance creates a different perspective altogether. Suddenly the grandiose palaces and museums were lost, Notre Dame all but disappeared and Saint-Sulpice swallowed entirely. Paris appeared transformed into a rather mundane urban sprawl complete with ill-fitting skyscrapers.

Perhaps the church added to this feeling of muddled modernity. An impressive building absolutely, but it lacked the presence and stillness of those previously mentioned. Only finished in 1914, the prevalence of selfie sticks, a little tooting tourist train and repeated warnings about pick-pockets all contributed to its more youthful and less reverent atmosphere.

We descended towards The Tuilieries as the sun climbed ever higher. Walking through these enormous gardens afforded me ample opportunity to use my “this is different to London” observations. For a start, you’re not allowed on the grass. Which must help Parisians retain their modesty in the heat, as opposed to the great swathes of misplaced beachgoers littering London’s parks. There were also lots of small business conversations taking place and an organised sketching group diligently re-imagining the tree before them. All in all it was, well, a little more civilised. Like stumbling across a National Trust garden in the middle of a city. Without the dreary café.

And so on to the bookshop. And what a bookshop. At face value, it is a hugely popular tourist attraction. Groups in all languages swoop from their holding pattern to land every few minutes. The building is agog with readers. Browsing, perusing, contemplating and discussing, considered antique-hunters and last-minute buyers spinning through the doors side by side. And there are, of course, books. Small books, big books, fiction books, history books, autobiographical books, fantasy books, art books, poetry books. Books on shelves, on tables, on shelves that are on tables, in shelves, on stairs, on counters, in cases, by doors and windows. Stacks of books that gently pirouette towards the ceiling and adjacent piles that create small literary skylines. And squeezed into this page-turning ecosystem are the ever-helpful staff, leaping up ladders to aid the latest request.

And this is just the ground floor.

Go upstairs and the atmosphere changes markedly. Here there is a children’s books section, a small writer’s cove (with typewriter), a tinny old piano welcoming players of all distinctions and a serenely arranged library room alive with the gentle hum of concentration. And a cat. Well, two cats, but we only saw one. Asleep on the couch between a man reading a newspaper and little girl reading a book.

Laura, the lovely events manager, took us on our tour with obvious and natural enthusiasm. We were told about the origins of the monasterial building, the hidden underground passageway leading to Notre Dame and how the marble floor had been created from smashed tombstones. She also explained founder George Whitman’s open-door approach to creative types looking for sanctuary – an approach still alive and well under his daughter Sylvia’s ownership. These are their Tumbleweeds: writers, thinkers and creators of things who drift through, staying on the beds dotted about the shop in return for store-work and a one page autobiography before the wind picks them up once more.

I think this soulful approach is what gives Shakespeare and Co. its unique spirit. Undoubtedly it is an astonishing reservoir of the written word in the English language, now sewn deep into the fabric of modern Paris. But there is a very human energy within its walls and a deep spirit rests beneath the stones. It is a special place.

Four purchased books later, including a William Boyd trilogy I’d had my eye on from their library and was very graciously allowed to buy, we left for London. Except we didn’t get very far (here comes the aforementioned adrenaline rush). A flash strike called by the taxi drivers meant the trains to the airport were cancelled and the small number of airport buses were overrun by about 500 people. Getting to Charles de Gaulle suddenly looked improbable. ‘How could we get there?’ we asked the sole bus driver who didn’t seem to carry the air of bored indifference hanging over the rest of his colleagues. He shrugged his shoulders. Ah my mistake, definitely bored and indifferent. Improbable just became impossible.

Now clearly this was not akin to America’s last days in Saigon. But to suddenly be in the middle of a swelling and angry crowd, with no way of leaving the country, no back-up plans and an entirely disinterested local transport service meant heart rates increased and blood pressures peaked. Snaking our way back towards St. Michel on the metro in search of a plan, mother suggested we see if Laura could help.

Well couldn’t she just. Laura was actually staging an event in the bookshop that night and the last thing she needed was two strays in need, boomeranging their way back into her life. She was brilliant. We could stay in one of the rooms above the bookshop, which was also an office where someone was currently working so would we mind dropping our bags off and coming back a bit later? Laura, we could perform cartwheels and juggle fireballs we’re so grateful, yes of course we can do that. Honourary tumbleweeds we were to be. Thank you so much x 20. Really, the decision to embrace and trust two waifs met but hours before speaks volumes about Laura and Shakespeare and Company’s attitude. They are helpers and they see humans, not numbers. Simply put, they are wonderful.

Simultaneously, we were able to arrange Eurostar tickets out of Paris for the next morning (thanks to my girlfriend, Little Brown and their travel partners for all their speedy help). The shoulders were unshrugged. We had fought indifference and won. And we had a final night in Paris.

It passed in a bit of blur. We dined in a café on the bank directly opposite Notre Dame, before strolling over the Pont des Arts to marvel at people’s commitment to attaching security locks to a bridge. Ice cream was bought at Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis and we gazed at the Seine’s tranquil groups of couples and friends drinking wine by candlelight, down at the water’s edge. Someone had a guitar and as they strummed some gentle chords together, the sun sank slowly down and I thought, “it is actually quite different to London, isn’t it?”