When I first read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in my early twenties, I was enchanted by the memoir of his time as a struggling young writer. Granted, there aren’t many aspiring wordsmiths who wouldn’t want to be transported back to Paris in the 1920s. I found myself captivated by Hemingway’s reflections of a much-romanticized era of les années folles (the crazy years). After the Great War, Paris was cheap and drew expatriate writers like moths to a flame. The "City of Light" was illuminated by flickering gas-lit street lamps and brightened by the minds of the "Lost Generation" – Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and James Joyce.
When Hemingway was poor, happy and writing in the cafes of Montparnasse, he struck up a friendship with a bookseller, Sylvia Beach. Beach owned a lending library on the Left Bank called Shakespeare and Company. The English-language bookstore was a haven for writers, as she would lend them books, money, or even a bed for the night. While bailing Hemingway out between paychecks, and publishing Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, (declared too scandalous by publishing houses), Shakespeare and Company became the rendezvous of the "Lost Generation".
My new home in Paris
I’d been to Paris once as a child. My only memories are of grey skies and glimmering zinc rooftops. I knew no one in Paris, I spoke little French and I couldn’t tell my Left Bank from my Right. Yet, after reading Hemingway’s descriptions, my desire to move there was immutable. When I first met my boyfriend as a student in Sydney, I warned him, “Someday, I’m moving to Paris”. A couple of years later, in 2013, I quit my job and packed my life into a suitcase. He promised he would follow in a few months. And, just like that, clutching a one-way ticket, I flew half-way across the world.
I set up home in an attic studio at place du Tertre in the heart of Montmartre. The tiny apartment, perched six flights of stairs above a creperie, had a low slanting roof and parquet floorboards. The scent of crepe au citron wafted up the stairwell, mingled with the marigolds in the flower box that framed the window. From here, I could observe the artists set up their easels along the cobbled laneway below. The Sacré Coeur stood like a storybook backdrop to our street. The possibilities of a life in Paris stretched out before me.
Shakespeare and Company bookstore
I had arrived in the spring, just in time to see the cherry blossoms decorating the iconic dark green and gold shopfront of Shakespeare and Company. The rambling store, once a 16th-century monastery, is all crooked corners and narrow staircases piled floor-to-ceiling with books. Sylvia Beach had closed her shop on rue de l'Odéon during WWII after refusing to sell a copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to a German officer. However, the story of Shakespeare and Company didn’t end there. In 1951, a bookstore opened around the corner, in the shadow of Notre Dame. The white-bearded, eccentric proprietor was American-born, George Whitman, who eventually renamed his store after the original Shakespeare and Company in 1964, paying homage to his old friend, Sylvia Beach.
George became a recognizable figure in the literary realm in his own right. Writer Anaïs Nin described him as “a saint among his books, lending them, housing penniless friends upstairs”. The address became the hangout of the "Beat Generation", including Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. William S. Burroughs used the library to research his novel, Naked Lunch. Meanwhile, Allen Ginsberg, a defining figure of the 1950s counterculture, performed Howl at a recital. The store was, as George would call it, “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Nowadays, Shakespeare and Company is legendary across the globe.
By summer, when the last of the cherry blossoms had fallen, my lease was up. Followed by a terse phone call that threw my life into a spin – my boyfriend wasn’t coming. I was broke, homeless, and heartbroken. If you haven’t been to Paris in August, you may not know that a peculiar feeling sweeps in with the heat. Parisians holiday in the south of France and the boulevards leave a hollow, ghostly impression of the way they were. I felt lost and alone.
Becoming a "Tumbleweed"
I found refuge on one of the oldest streets of the Rive Gauche, where the Latin Quarter meets the Seine, at 37 rue de la Bucherie to be exact. Stepping through that ramshackle threshold, Shakespeare and Company became my sanctuary as it had for so many drifters before me. The bookstore has that old-world charm that confirms our romantic images of Paris’s literary Left Bank. Some say the shop is now too touristy, but they haven’t experienced the magic of when the doors close for the evening.
I set foot on the doorstep, a few strokes shy of midnight, rather sodden, having walked from Montmartre with all my worldly possessions in the midst of a summer storm. I’d been invited to stay as a "Tumbleweed" – a title given to fledgling writers that live in the bookshop for free based on the proviso they "read a book a day". George’s legacy of offering board to young bibliophiles was continued by his daughter, Sylvia Whitman. She had been tasked with tending to the next chapter in the shop’s history after George died in 2011, surrounded by books, at the ripe age of ninety-eight.
Tumbleweeds sleep tucked in among the bookshelves in the upstairs library. My corner was in the piano enclave, on a makeshift bed of a thin mattress on a wooden door. In the evening we’d pull out bedding hidden in the shop’s nooks and crannies. I’d awake in the morning to the ringing of Notre Dame’s bells, before clambering over the other lodgers and the bookstore’s dog, Colette, to lean out the window and greet the gargoyles of Île de la Cité.
My fellow "Tumbles" were like characters from a novel; a mix of Oxbridge undergrads, artists, poets, and bohemians – united by a love of literature, drinking wine and showering infrequently. After the shop opened at 9am, we would meander the backstreets of the quarter and pause at a local tabac for an espresso served at the bar. Following in the footsteps of Hemingway, we frequented his old haunts and continued towards the "wonderful, narrow street market" of rue Mouffetard. Here we would use the jangling purse of coins donated in the bookstore wishing well (Sign: "Feed the starving writers"). We’d buy a baguette on rue Monge and, if the donations were generous that week, some gooey Camembert.
One never quite knew what each day would hold. Sometimes I’d be flying through the leafy lanes of Jardin du Plantes on the back of a scooter with a mission to buy rare first-editions from a retiring French author. Other days I simply sorted dusty books. If a book abruptly flew off the shelves, it was said to be “the ghost of George”, who, famously capricious, had been known to throw a tome or two at those who suddenly displeased him.
Although little writing was ever done, I began to truly feel like a writer. I adopted the French art of flaneuring – wandering around without intention or direction. Armed with observations of Parisian life, I would scribble my thoughts down at street-side cafes or in the shade of chestnut trees in Jardin du Luxembourg (where Hemingway used to hunt pigeons to feed his family). On weekends, Tumbleweeds would make crepes in the kitchen of George’s apartment above the shop. Sunday afternoons were spent attending tea parties run by an octogenarian Welsh poet who regaled us with stories of how George used to cut his hair by setting it alight with a candle, or leave his shop entrusted to an unwitting customer, only to return a week later.
At dusk we’d bond over a bottle of €2 Bordeaux, as we sat along the banks of the Seine with a view of the soaring buttress of Notre Dame. The very same “majestic and sublime edifice” immortalised by Victor Hugo, glowed in the moonlight, as it has for over 800 years. We’d return to the store in the small hours of the morning to be bombarded with insults from the drunkard of the quarter, and drifted to sleep with the echo of his beer tins hitting the window frame.
Many visitors come to Paris, drawn by the nostalgia of the Roaring Twenties. Trailing the tourist sites, they may leave disappointed and unable to capture the city’s elusive essence. That year, writing new chapters to the history of Shakespeare and Company, I came as close as I could. In that quaint little bookstore by the Seine, among the books, and surrounded by the yellowing pages of the past, I found Paris.