Ordering books online is easy, and that’s great. Getting them delivered to your home the very next day is really great. Downloading an electronic version onto your smartphone so you can read it on the go is really, really great. But there is something vital, something visceral, about meandering through a bookstore with no time limit, no specific goal… just for the pure sensuous pleasure of it.
While no one wants to load up their luggage with a stack of books (well, almost no one…), a carefully selected pair permits you the pleasure of perusal as well as the sheer joy of having something tangible to hold at home. And you might be surprised by how many options are available in Paris for readers of English. Here are the three we like best.
Shakespeare and Company 37, Rue de la Bûcherie
Any discussion of this topic must begin with Shakespeare and Company. Through the 1920s and well into the Second World War, this was the very center of Anglophone society in the City of Lights. The little shop in rue de l’Odéon was frequented by artists, writers, journalists, and all those who wanted to meet them. The list of names reads like a Who’s Who of early 20th-century English-language literary achievement. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Man Ray… When no one else would touch James Joyce’s groundbreaking Ulysses with a ten-foot pole, shop owner Sylvia Beach funded publication from her own pocket. Returning from his endless peregrinations, Hemingway would stop in to pick up his mail here. WIth the outbreak of war and the fall of Paris to the Nazis in the spring of 1940, Beach had no choice but to close down in 1941.
A decade later, ex-serviceman George Whitman opened a bookstore called Le Mistral on the Left Bank, almost directly across from Notre-Dame cathedral. Over dinner together in Paris in 1958, Beach declared that she was handing the name of her old shop to Whitman, if he would have it. Six years later, in 1964, the year of Beach’s death and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Whitman rechristened his shop in honor of both of them. What Shakespeare and Company was to the Lost Generation in the 20s it became to the Bohemian and Beat Generation of the postwar 50s. And the list of habitués is just as stellar: Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, James Baldwin, Bertolt Brecht, Max Ernst. The shop has been run by Whitman’s daughter Sylvia (reputedly named after Sylvia Beach) since 2003. She continues the proud tradition of sponsoring literary events such as readings and writers’ workshops.
The shop’s fame has indeed spread wide, which means that it is often overrun by excitable visitors. The narrow passageways between shelves leaves little room for comfortably ambling through them during the busy summer tourist-heavy months. If you’re here during the high season, make a point of going early. To avoid the crowd altogether, pop into the Antiquarian Books shop, directly adjacent to the main store. What it lacks in dimensions it more than makes up for in the quality of its eclectic rare editions. Make a full experience of it by taking your newly acquired tome(s) and take a seat at the Shakespeare and Company coffee house next door and fill your eyes, your mind and your mouth all at the same time!
The Abbey Bookshop 29, rue de la Parcheminerie
Located just a block from the famed Boulevard Saint-Michel (Boul’Mich to the locals) in the very heart of the Latin Quarter, The Abbey Bookshop is like something out of an old film. The place is packed tight with treasures old and new, and with aisles even narrower than at Shakespeare and Company, there is ample opportunity to strike up a conversation with fellow browsers. Opened in 1989 by Toronto native Brian Spence, The Abbey Bookshop has secured a spot in the tender heart of the Anglophone community and a position of prestige among the city’s many Anglophiles. Canadian titles are not surprisingly but serendipitously to be found in great number, further enriching the already impressive collection, especially considering the diminutive dimensions.
There are shelves stacked so closely together that you can't walk past another person in the aisle. There are shelves upon shlves, and shelves behind rollaway shelves. And there is a veritable cave of wonders beneath.
Making things even better is Brian Spence himself. He takes notice of who is in his shop, and he is genuinely interested in their experience there. As far as he knew, we were just a pair of average Joes visiting his shop. He's the one who showed us the the shelves behind the shelves. Later, as we were ensconced in the hidden part of the History section, he poked his head around the corner and said, "I'm about to make some coffee. Would you care for some? And there's maple syrup as well, if you'd like a bit of that in your coffee." Naturally, we eagerly accepted.
Though buzzing with life in the Middle Ages – first as home to scribes and scriveners, then to parchment makers – rue de la Parcheminerie today is a harbor of tranquility in the sea of the city’s hubbub. This may be one of the most memorable sidetrips down a narrow street that you will make while in Paris.
The Red Wheelbarrow 11, rue de Médicis
Originally opened in 2001 by Penelope Fletcher – from “and island off an island off Vancouver” – The Red Wheelbarrow is a relative newcomer to the collection of English-language bookshops in Paris. Fletcher’s project was born in the Marais before closing in 2012, notably not because of poor performance but rather for personal reasons. When it was resuscitated in 2018, it was with the support of ten owners, led by Fletcher herself, at 9 rue de Médicis, directly across from the Luxembourg Gardens. Now they have expanded into number 11 of the same street, which is the principal shop, with the number 9 address serving as home to Paris’ first bilingual English-French children’s bookstore. On any given day, you will see Ms. Fletcher zipping back and forth between the two shops, ever ready to help you locate that one particular title you’ve been hunting down (she still makes nearly all the decisions on acquisitions) or suggest something that always seems to be precisely what you didn’t even know you were looking for.
Inside, the store is that blissful balance of quirky and tidy, stuffed to the gills but somehow not cluttered. It’s a kind of magic. Their involvement in the community is profound and sincere, and they maintain a brilliant blog to keep you abreast of the goings-on. Our suggestion? Pop in, browse around just for the frivolous fun of it, pick up a few items and tote them over to the garden across the street for a lazy autumn afternoon lounging in the sun with a sweet story.