Tumbleweeding in Paris
TALES OF TRAVEL ADDICT:If I reincarnate I will definitely try to spend a while as a Tumbleweed in Paris next time around, joining the motley bunch of idealistic young book-lovers who are given sanctuary in the labyrinthine Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the banks of the Seine.
The bookshop was founded by a benevolent American dreamer named George Whitman after the second World War and has become a sanctuary for writers and readers for half a century. He described it as “a socialist Utopia masquerading as a bookstore” and since his death in 2011, his daughter, Sylvia, keeps the dream alive.
It’s a bibliophile’s candy store. A single visit at any time of the day or night proves the eternal allure of books and how they will be with us for years to come, no matter what new technology looms. Readers mingle outside like butterflies at a buddleia bush. Inside, the shelves and tables are stacked with tomes, while up the creaky stairs of the medieval building is George’s own library with books signed to him by many of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century.
Sylvia runs the shop along the lines of her father’s core credos: “Give what you can, take what you need”, and “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise”. It is the latter idea that gave birth to the Tumbleweeds, a lucky group of travellers who help out in the bookshop in return for a bed. There have been 50,000 over 50 years. Myths have arisen as to how one gets to be a Tumbleweed. Must one submit a wondrous Ulysses-like extract, or choose the right book off the shelf, or quote the right author? In fact, all that is necessary is to turn up and talk to Sylvia. She decides.
Considering the original Shakespeare and Company (which is unconnected to this new iteration) was the first brave publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses, one wonders whether being Irish helps. Certainly, the Irish have always been welcome in the shop, with writers from Beckett to Dervla Murphy to Dermot Healy being regular guests, and, more recently, musicians Fionn Regan and Glen Hansard playing gloriously intimate gigs there.
Tumbleweeds tend to stress what a huge influence working in the shop has had on their later lives, getting to meet new people of similar disposition from far-flung corners. There are countless stories of aspirational writers who’ve had their dreams of a literary career copper-fastened during their stay. Perhaps, more than anything else, it was George’s primary commandment that influenced them: he implored his guests to read a book a day while availing of his hospitality.
Perhaps I, too, can become a Tumbleweed in this respect, if no other, by reading a book a day for even a short while. I may not have the tolling of Notre Dame’s bells to inspire me, or the scent of crêperies nearby, but by choosing just the right book I can whisk my mind far further away than even this alluring spot.