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Can the World's Most Famous Bookstore Retain its Iconic Status As it Enters 100-Year Club?

Shakespeare and Company, like other small bookshops standing against the rising tide of technology and drones, reminds us of an age that is being taken away from us, quite swiftly.

Binoo K John |

Updated:November 17, 2019, 5:27 PM IST
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Can the World's Most Famous Bookstore Retain its Iconic Status As it Enters 100-Year Club?
Shakespeare and Company as it stands is right in the heart of Paris close to the Latin Quarter.

What is it in a bookshop that makes it a cute romanticised thing that provides intellectual succour, and a feeling that it is a landmark that should remain.

If it is the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company (established in 1919 by Sylvia Beach and her partner Adrianne Monnier) that we are talking about, it fulfils all these conditions.

Shakespeare and Company, like other small bookshops standing against the rising tide of technology and drones, reminds us of an age that is being taken away from us, quite swiftly.

For a bookshop, 2019 is a bad time to be alive and open. The book retailing business has been reinvented, the printed book which withstood 500 years of turmoil has itself been taken over by technology and digitised and no one is willing to pay the price printed on the cover of a book. If there are writers anymore, it is because they don’t know what else to do.

Shakespeare and Company is right in the heart of Paris, in Rue de la Bucherie, close to the Latin Quarter, a lowly companion of the Notre Dame Cathedral on the other side of the road, standing there like a relic without a roof and the dome after last year’s devastating fire.

The fire that Shakespeare and Co has to fight is technology and changing human behaviour — books are not bought from brick and mortar shops any more.

However, hordes of tourists turn up at the gates of this small shop at least to pay respect to a forgotten legacy, like this writer did in June this year.

The insides are a bit cramped, the wooden shelves smell of the ages when Hemingway was a regular visitor or James Joyces rummaged through its shelves or Alan Ginsberg read from his poems standing naked.

Well the shelves are still disorderly, unable to pack in as much as it would like to and where do you look for travellogues?

I came back with 'Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August' (14 Euros) though I was tempted to pick up the latest non-fiction collection of Gabriel Garcia Marquez journalistic articles.

The reason I didn’t pick up the Marquez book was the price, which at 20 Euros was a bit steep. A month later, I got the same book in India for one fourth the price.

This is the reason why the book shop has lost its logic of existence. However, governments have come to their rescue and in Germany, and soon, in other parts of Europe, online retailer Amazon cannot sell books for less that the printed cover price.

Like many such stores, Shakespeare and Company now has a cafe on the side, adding a lot to the revenues. Well the shop is still crowded but how long will it last?

Well, the villain is Amazon whose sales of printed books have crossed $5 billion leaving very little for stores to pick up. Sale of printed books on Amazon grew by 46% in 2017, indicating that people are reading more books but prefer ordering it from home.

Soon in the US, books will be delivered by Amazon drones in the backyard of your suburban home. There is nothing like having your favourite author drop down from the skies, while you are applying butter to your morning toast.

Very soon in the future, Amazon will not only be selling almost all books worldwide, but it will take over the entire business of publishing and marketing books. Even today, Amazon has an incredible array of imprints that are still trying to make a mark but the break-out will happen soon according to wired.com.

Amazon imprint Thomas & Mercer publishes mysteries, thrillers, Little A does literary fiction and non-fiction, Amazon Crossing does translated texts, Montlac Romance, of course, the love stories and on and on it goes.

In India, Amazon acquired Westland publishers two years ago. Amazon has a brick and mortar book store in Seattle and soon, elsewhere, but in these shops, the idea is not to sell books as much as it is to work out new technology like its Amazon Pay wallet and payments system.

As an Amazon account holder, you can walk in and out of the shop without physically paying after logging in to your account.

But yes, we have to remember and keep alive Shakespeare and Company for reasons of nostalgia and moon-lit evening reading books on the pavement near it as Parisians have done for a century now.

Also, to smell and feel the printed page or to flip through the latest thriller. We also need to remember the Beat generation, and the various hippies and depressed writers who were allowed to sleep for a night or two inside the store. All of which will no longer be a part of human behaviour.

After World War II, the shop closed down and in 1951, was taken over by George Whitman, an American eccentric, who gave the shop its present name in 1964, Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary.

His daughter, Sylvia Whitman, now owns and runs the shop. George was an incorrigible eccentric who spent all the money on the shop and nothing on himself even burning his beard occasionally to save on shaving costs.

The shop is a monument to eccentricity as well. Where else will Johnny Depp be thrown out of the fourth floor apartment where George lived?

Slyvia told Vanity Fair that she had a tough time redoing the shop as George turned into his mid-80s.

“You’ve moved the Russian section! This is crazy!’ He’d drag me over and say, ‘Do you not understand why I had the Russian section here?’ And I’d be like, ‘Well, no. I moved it over there. It’s fine.’ He’d be like, ‘No! The Russian section has to be here because this nook is so romantic. And then you have gaps between the shelves so you can see and fall in love with a customer on the other side while you’re reading Dostoyevsky.’ And I was like, ‘Oh god, you’ve really planned out every corner.’ ”

Notre Dame across the road will rise up soon from the ashes so to say with its dome and steeples are rebuilt. Icons of faith are always rebuilt. Nearby, Shakespeare and Company will be looking for a recast Dome that will protect it forever.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)

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