The bookstore is often a portal — to worlds more wondrous than reality —but you must learn to surrender to chance. You must lose yourself in a maze of musty bookshelves. You must let the book find you. Few other bookstores have staged such encounters with so much love and generosity as Shakespeare and Co. The legendary Parisian bookstore’s literary cred is enviable: its first edition, founded by American Sylvia Beach, was featured in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, doubled as office and salon for James Joyce and friends; and functioned as a safe harbour for books that turned censors apoplectic (such as DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover). Under its second owner George Whitman, Shakespeare and Co remained a literary hub, but the three-storied establishment became roomier still. It opened its doors to other stories: A traveller from across the world could sleep in tiny folding beds, tucked between bookshelves, in exchange for reading a book, and writing a one-page autobiography.
But like many other things of beauty that the pandemic has ravaged, the legendary Parisian bookstore, too, is struggling. Sales are down 80 per cent since March, prompting owners to appeal to regular customers to order on their website. That’s not the only independent bookstore that is gasping for breath. New York’s The Strand sent out a similar distress signal to its customers, prompting a deluge of online orders that crashed its website.
The independent bookstore, which bears the stamp of its owners and curators, is the antithesis of the online shopping cart, which offers the banality of click and pay. But it is also a tenacious creature. It has outlasted those who regularly prophesise its demise, and will, hopefully, survive the pandemic, even if it has to adapt to e-delivery to do so. Whitman called his bookstore a “novel in three words”. Here’s hoping that this is only a temporary ironic twist in its riveting narrative.