It’s the Poetry Center’s September 2016 Family Days, and I’m sitting on a rug in the Shakespeare & Company playspace helping Carolynn use a typewriter. Carolynn’s six and wants to show me that she can spell her name. At first, her little fingers press the keys too delicately, and ink barely adheres to the white paper. “You have to press down hard, almost slam it,” I counsel, and she takes my advice, crashing her fingers into the keys until C-A-R-O-L-Y-N-N comes out in stark black letters on the page.
At a nearby table, kids and parents stamp postcards that will, if they want, be sent to the Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. A stack of pamphlets on the table offer a kid-friendly history of the influential bookstore, and a blank page where they--like Tumbleweeds, the writers who are given a place to stay at Shakespeare & Company in return for completing a few tasks--can write a one-page biography. On the wall behind the table is a mural of Shakespeare & Company’s facade, complete with the Paris bookstore’s signature green trim and a note from the legendary, late proprietor George Whitman.
In summer of 2005, when I was sixteen, I studied abroad in Paris. I was awkward and nerdy, and made few friends in my program. While other students spent their free time hunting for vintage clothes and meeting cute boys near the Eiffel Tower (oh, how I longed to be one of those Americans that French boys noticed!), I took to wandering the city. It was the first time in my life that I was permitted so much freedom of movement and it was thrilling--I made it my aim to visit every arrondissement that I could, to try and make sense of the sprawling metropolis. Long before I knew what a flâneur was, I inadvertently adopted that persona, weaving down the broad boulevards and narrow side streets in a pink flowered dress and a pair of Converse sneakers.
I was obsessed with the intellectual life of early and mid-twentieth century Paris. I read A Moveable Feast over coffee at La Rotonde, a red fabric and brass trimmed Montparnasse café where Hemingway was said to hang out. I walked through Cimetière du Père-Lachaise with a doner kebab in hand until I found, quite by accident, Jim Morrison’s grave, colorfully graffitied and festooned with flowers and empty bottles of liquor. I sat inside Les Deux Magots, smearing butter onto toast and imagining Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at another table, discussing philosophy and feminism.
But my favorite character from this era was Sylvia Beach. Beach was born in Baltimore, like I was, but settled in Paris towards the end of World War I. In 1919, she opened Shakespeare & Company, where she played host to writers like James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Beach--whose known romantic partners were, it’s worth mentioning, women--had a pile of messy, crimped hair and piercing dark eyes, and, in photographs, she is often seated around a table with the literary luminaries her bookshop supported. Beach was also a publisher: one of the titles she released was Joyce’s dense, controversial novel Ulysses. According to rumor, the store was shut down by a German officer during the Nazi occupation because Beach refused to sell him the shop’s last copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. That was 1941; the bookstore never reopened.
I knew, however, that another shop, dedicated to carrying on the tradition of bookstore-as-literary-nucleus, had opened in 1951. In 1964, after founder George Whitman received Beach’s blessing, he renamed it Shakespeare & Company. The continuity between the past and present bookshops thrilled me, and one day I walked up Boulevard St-Michel to the banks of the Seine. I followed the river southeast, until I found a storefront with Shakespeare & Company etched on the sign and a painting of the Bard himself angled above the front door.
I wandered through the labyrinthine space, browsing shelves so full of books they threatened to topple over. I noticed daybeds tucked into nooks and crannies, and read--on a sign or in a pamphlet, I can’t recall--that these were where Tumbleweeds, aspiring writers who stayed at the shop for about week at a time, slept. I wondered if I would grow up to be the kind of person who could earn a place in one of those soft corners. I leaned back in one and felt the pillows beneath me, slipped into a daydream where I was in my twenties, a real writer, back in Paris at the bookseller’s invitation.
Before I left, I selected one volume to buy: a Vintage Classic edition of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I carried it to the counter, where an affable old man with a shock of bone-white hair sold it to me for eighteen euros. That man was, of course, George Whitman.
When I returned one Sunday with a friend, Whitman invited us upstairs for tea. My memory of that afternoon exists in snatches--a room with comfy seating streaked with light; a half-dozen conversations floating around me; steaming tea served in a chipped cup. Too shy to make conversation, I sipped my tea and watched, early practice in the kind of writerly observation that would soon permeate my life. When our cups were finished and the conversation died down, my friend and I left, making our way south towards our dorm. Every step I took felt enchanted, as though the bookstore had somehow taken root inside me.
My month in Paris was ending, and that would be the last time I visited Shakespeare & Company. It was also the last chance I’d ever have to be in Whitman’s presence: he died in December 2011, at the age of 98.
For the past eleven years, I haven’t thought much about that summer in Paris. At sixteen, my interests moved swiftly, and soon after I returned home my passion for 20th century Paris waned and was replaced by a new enthusiasm for anarchist zines, punk rock shows, and long weekends exploring New York City (I lived in a nearby suburb). The last time that summer came up was a year later when, in AP History class, my friend Kristen and I performed a skit about Shakespeare & Company. She wore gray pants tucked into high socks and was a convincing Hemingway; I wore my favorite beige trench coat and pretended, for the ten minutes of the skit, to be Sylvia Beach.
Just a few months ago, my mother sent me a portfolio I put together as my final project for the creative writing class I took in Paris--I had pasted disposable camera selfies and printouts of my writing over the pages of a free pamphlet that accompanied a contemporary art exhibit. I cut out some of the selfies and a surprisingly good but very creepy prose poem about skulls, gardens and Toulouse-Lautrec, and threw the rest of the portfolio in the trash. It seemed, at the moment, irrelevant.
Then, on a recent September morning, I walked into the Poetry Center and saw the new Shakespeare & Company mural. A nostalgic flutter rose up from stomach and into my heart and lungs.
As I teach Carolynn to use the typewriter, I think about what makes the Poetry Center’s Shakespeare & Company playspace so special. I consider that one of these kids will someday visit Paris, walk into Shakespeare & Company, and remember learning about it years before, in Arizona. Or, even better, perhaps a child, friend, or parent will step into the re-creation and be inspired to open their own bookshop, one suited for the borderlands region where Tucson is situated. Or maybe the space will have smaller, but just as powerful, impacts: the clanking, clanging typewriter will encourage a school child to start writing; or they’ll fall in love with one of the books on the selected reading list.
This is just, of course, speculation. I can’t know what the Shakespeare & Company playspace will inspire, what others will find in its Tumbleweed nook, hand-painted facade and charming, informational booklets. I do know, however, that the space is having an effect on me-- it reminds me of the dreams I fostered that long ago summer. Some have been realized: Although I haven’t returned to Paris, I’ve become a committed writer, publishing my essays and poems in zines and online journals. Other dreams, like my desire to organize a literary space similar to the one George Whitman created, were lost over time. As I sit in the Poetry Center’s Shakespeare & Company, I feel that dream coming back and think, Maybe I will hang a sign on a door someday and welcome strangers in to browse shelves full of books. Maybe those adolescent longings weren’t so quixotic after all.
Here, in this space dedicated to childhood and adolescence, I’m able to slip back into mine.
Wren Awry is a current Writing the Community student.