Interview: Sylvia Whitman, Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris

Sylvia Whitman spent her earlier childhood years amid the burgeoning creative chaos of Paris' legendary English language bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. Flurries of books and conversations, the incessant coming and going of writers working and lodging at the shop-- these are the images, Sylvia says, that populate her early memories. At only 21, she returned to Paris from the UK, and ended up (to her own surprise, she notes), taking over management of the storied shop from her father, George Whitman.

A legend in his own right, George Whitman opened a bookshop, Le Mistral, in 1951 just across from Notre Dame, but changed the name to Shakespeare and Company when his friend and owner of the original left-bank shop, Sylvia Beach, passed away. Whitman would retain the spirit of the original shop, welcoming writers such as Anaïs Nin and Allen Ginsburg, and would also name his daughter after the brazen young bookseller who dared to publish James Joyce's Ulysses when no one else would.

Since Sylvia took the helm at S & Co., she's brought a fresh sense of relevance to the place-- especially through the creation of Festivalandco, a biannual literary festival that brings together some of the most exciting contemporary voices in fiction, poetry, and other genres. I met Sylvia recently for a chat near the bookshop to talk about the 2010 festival-- which runs June 18th through 20th-- and about keeping the spirit of the shop alive and well. Below are excerpts.

01 of 05

Bringing the Tumbleweeds into the 21st Century...

Sylvia Whitman outside the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.
©2010 Courtney Traub.

CT: You’ve been running Shakespeare and Company for the past few years, and have been putting your own mark on the place. What was that like growing up in this chaotic but wonderful, haphazard world-- people constantly coming and going?

SW: It was very bohemian, I suppose. I was there until I was about six, so the memories are kind of blurry-- lots of people coming in and out. Lots of writers, and people reading stories every day. It was kind of idyllic, to be surrounded by so many young people-- our writers in residence, or the “tumbleweeds” as we call them. I have a very strong memory of people reading to me in the shop, a very nice one. Then there was a long gap (....) and I didn’t come back until I was 21. I lived in Scotland (for) boarding school and then went to university in London.

CT: And as soon as you came back, you took over the shop-- it was quite a young age to take over a shop with such a huge legacy.

SW: Yes, and I was completely oblivious to that, which was a good thing. I remember people commenting on the pressure. But when you’re thrown in the deep end like that, you just get on with it. (...) I just tried to learn and carry on. (...) When I came back, I actually didn’t want to run the bookshop at all. I just came back to get to know my dad. But I quickly realized that to get to know him.. you have to know the bookshop, because the two are the same, basically. And then I really enjoyed it-- not to my expectations, but I did.

(Click to the next page to continue the interview)

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02 of 05

On Feeling Parisian (but not French)

Portraits of famous writers who have passed through Shakespeare and Company hang in Whitman's office
©2010 Courtney Traub.

CT: Do you consider yourself French?

SW: No, not really. I was born in Paris, and I feel extremely Parisian in a lot of ways. When I came back...all of these childhood memories-- the smell of the metro, or the style of windows-- all of these very childhood, sensory memories came back, and made me feel such a sense of familiarity with the city. So I feel totally at home, but at the same time very different. I think when you’ve gone to school in a different country, those are really your formative years. I don’t think you really feel 100% French if you don’t go to school here. (...) I have an American passport because my Dad [Shakespeare and Company founder George Whitman] is American, but I guess I feel like I’m from London more than anything, which is strange because I was only there for three years.

CT: You just published the first new issue The Paris Magazine, Shakespeare and Company’s own literary journal. Could you tell me about this project?

SW: This is actually a reincarnation of my Dad’s magazine, which was [first published] in 1957-- and then he did another two in the 80’s-- but it was very random, and not at all done on a [regular] basis. So this is number four. I published it, and the editor [Fatema Ahmed] was formerly the editor of Granta magazine.

(Interview continues on the next page)

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03 of 05

"A socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop"

The iconic green facade of the present-day incarnation of Shakespeare and Company.
©2008 Jnkypt. Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons license.

CT: Your father famously quipped at some point, “The bookshop is a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop”. Do you think you manage to keep that spirit alive, and if so, how do you do this in this economy which isn’t exactly kind to independent bookshops?

SW: I definitely try to keep that philosophy. My Dad is so extreme sometimes in how he says things-- I love it. He’s such a romantic and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. (...) That quote is definitely very important to me and the people who work there that we keep that (spirit). One major part of doing that is having these young writers sleeping in the bookshop. And I tried to make it a little bit more strict. (...) The space is so small, I decided I just wanted writers (...) and that’s made an enormous difference. I realized it wasn’t clear enough,. that you really have to be writing something to stay here. You can be doing all sorts of things...writing music or poetry. (...) And it seems to be very invigorating and encouraging for people when we sort of make that system. That system of the “tumbleweeds” makes the bookshop unlike any other business.

So many people are surprised to find this kind of beatnik system in the heart of’s really unique. A lot of them stay a long time, or come back. We have a great relationship with them, and they leave feeling much more positive in a way. Just feeling like you can be generous toward other people, and it will work. You can trust people, and ask them to be responsible, and they generally will.

CT: It seems as if you see your business as being one that participates in literary creation and dialogue, and if that aspect weren’t there anymore...

SW: Part of its soul would be would be colder. I actually contacted 10 or so former "tumbleweeds" for a special feature in [The Paris Magazine] and it was amazing getting in contact with them. They had been at the shop in the '50s and '60s (...) and every single one out of these 10 almost cried when we contacted them. They said that we had brought back so many memories and it’s moving to think about. I then emailed them what they had written in their early '20s...their’s really intense. I realized in doing this how important that stay was for them, so it seems like something that needs to continue.

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04 of 05

The Festivalandco Literary Festival, Past and Present

CT: You co-launched the Shakespeare and Festival Literary Festival, also known as "Festivalandco", in 2003. How did that come about?

SW: I did the first festival in 2003 and that was the first year that I was [at Shakespeare and Company] as well. It was really intense. It was very much done in a very naive way. Four girlfriends and I...we thought, we’ll do a huge festival, 9 days...and after about 6 days we were dying! It [centered around beat poets]...and [the writers] wanted to party all the time. They were about 70 years old, and we were in our 20’s, and we kept saying, “Please, we want to go to bed!” It was embarrassing...the roles were reversed.

We started the festival because when I arrived Dad was 88 already, and didn’t have the energy he had previously. Everything was a bit dusty. There were just tourist groups that would come by, and endlessly talk about the 20’s and the ‘50s. And it just became a bit boring to talk about the past. It’s such an interesting, rich literary history that's happened in Paris, but we wanted to kind of say well, what’s happening now? And put some new energy into it. There are so many young people who are at the bookshop, and I just didn’t feel that the events reflected that youth. And so the idea was to sort of be a kind of explosion of energy and wake everyone up, and say, “Look, there's something happening now.”

I was in love with this park (right across from the bookshop) that’s got the oldest tree in Paris, the oldest church in Paris -- it’s just a beautiful park but there’s never any events held there. It seemed like a sort of ideal space--- we don’t have much space in the bookshop, so it seemed like an idyllic space, in a marquee right across from Notre Dame Cathedral. It was to put some energy back into the bookshop and explore this space. Also, we didn’t know of any major literary festival held in the heart of Paris, which seemed kind of weird considering explosions of literary festivals in Britain, for example. This is such a literary city, it was kind of weird not to have that.

As I said, it (started out) very young and naive, but we had a very good reaction from the festival and people really seemed to be enjoying it. And we were very lucky to get some good sponsors from the beginning, like Eurostar. Then the New York Review of Books in 2008.

LAST PAGE: On Politics and Storytelling

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05 of 05

The 2010 Shakespeare and Company Literary Festival: Politics and Storytelling

A rare edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam at Shakespeare and Company.
©2010 Courtney Traub

CT: Tell me about the theme of this year's festival: Politics and storytelling.

SW: That [theme] came about because we had such an interesting panel on politics at the last festival, and that was really the period where there was complete Obamamania. It was sort of electric, that reading panel. And we thought, “This is interesting, because so many people have become political because of Obama-- sort of a whole new generation”. So we thought this could be a good topic-- also because media is changing so much, especially with the internet, that putting these two words together, "politics" and "storytelling", seemed very topical, There’s so much you can put under that umbrella.

We really tried to choose a real range of authors, and to have poetry in there, but also quite a lot of topical ones, so there are a lot of South African writers and South African -themed events.

CT: So many writers pride themselves on being apolitical...but is it really possible to be so?

SW: It’s true that in having a theme, we often have writers write back and say, “I’m not a travel writer-- I’m a fiction writer,” or “I’m not a political writer”. (...) I think these are the questions we want to bring up: Do writers feel that they should comment on society, and taking that role? Some writers are convinced it’s a role they should take on, and others are 100% against it. So I think it’ll inevitably come up in the discussions.

CT: Which authors are you particularly excited about in the 2010 lineup?

SW: [American Poet] Jack Hirschman is opening it up. (...) He’s a beat poet (..) and he’s like a bear-- he’s got this roaring voice, and he’s got such a great presence, he’s actually fantastic to open the festival-- he’ll sort of wake everyone up.

Natalie Clein is this incredible cellist, and she’s going to play in the park, if weather is nice, just sort of randomly. So that should be great.

[British Writer] Will Self will be great, because he’s such a great performer. There will be a conversation between Will Self and [fellow British fiction writer] Martin Amis which should prove very interesting and unusual... I don’t think they’ve done anything together before.

I’m so excited about [Pakistani poet and writer] Fatima Bhutto-- she basically watched her whole family be assassinated, and the memoir she wrote is absolutely fascinating and important and powerful. It explains a lot about Pakistan and she’s very honest.

[Journalist] Emma Larkin will be really great-- that's actually her pseudonym. Maybe she’s even a man-- we have no idea. She’s coming disguised, and no one’s allowed to take photographs-- (...) it’s really a very serious one, but there'll be a really interesting conversation about Burma.

[British fiction writer] Jeanette Winterson is always incredible...when she talked at the last festival, people really had tears in their eyes. She’s very powerful and she’s an exceptional person.

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