Heart's Ink

Heart's Ink

Book stores are vast continents, magical realms, haunted houses, love letters, time capsules, sanctuaries. To enter a book store is to step inside a house of muses—the voices of the past mingle with those of the present, building castles of words that possess the ability to transform perspectives, mend broken hearts. Book store proprietors are vital members of the literary community. In this series for Violet Online, Emma Leokadia Walkiewicz of Girls on the Page discusses the joys and obstacles of owning an independent book store with the women who run them.
Published: 2024/01/10
Updated: 2024/01/19
Emma Leokadia Walkiewicz

“Each monastery had a frère lampier whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I have been doing this for fifty years. Now it is my daughter’s turn," wrote George Whitman on the shutters outside Shakespeare & Company when his daughter Sylvia Whitman took over the family business in 2006. Here she speaks to Violet Online about managing one of the world’s most recognisable book stores.

What are your earliest memories of reading? Was there a specific book that captured your imagination and made you fall in love with literature?

The first book I remember reading is Mouse Tales by Arnold Lobel. I was immediately captivated by these really sweet and imaginative stories about mice and clouds and the shapes that clouds make, going from a castle to (terrifyingly for a mouse!) a cat. Other stories include a mouse in a bath that overflows and floods into his entire town (I think about it every time I take a bath!). Otherwise, the first longer book I remember was Alice in Wonderland, and I find it a wonderful story on so many different levels. It encapsulates the very idea of reading for me: falling down into a tunnel and opening a door into another world.

What excites you most about being a bookstore owner, and is there something that you love to witness among shoppers?

What I love is first thing in the morning: opening the doors and wondering what kind of reader and what books will arrive each day. As we are a generalist bookshop dealing with new, second-hand, and rare books, there is always a book that surprises! I absolutely love it when I see people making connections and friendships through books, whether it’s between booksellers or readers. Sometimes, it even ends in a love story.

For years, writers, artists, and creatives were invited to sleep among the shelves of Shakespeare and Company. They were nicknamed “tumbleweeds”. Your father’s motto was, “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” In exchange, it was asked that they read a book a day, write a single-page autobiography for the store’s archives, and help around the shop. Can you speak to that tradition and what it’s been like hosting them?

Hosting tumbleweeds is really at the heart of the spirit of the bookshop. It’s something I’ve been reflecting on a lot recently because, since Covid, we have not had any tumbleweeds (otherwise known as aspiring writers!) stay with us. We are lucky to have a writer's residency, and it’s full with various published authors staying, especially those doing events with us. The tumbleweeds, however, sleep amongst the books in the bookstore. When there are tumbleweeds around you usually know because you can spot one walking around the store talking in a very passionate and romantic way about an author or poet that they’ve just read. They often busk outside the bookshop to make a little extra cash, play the guitar in the stairway, go down to the river to drink a bottle of cheap wine and talk about books; their presence brings a dynamic, bohemian energy to the bookshop that I find strange not to have because it’s the first time since 1951 that we haven’t hosted tumbleweeds.

Our space was reduced because of Covid, but now we are recovered and looking forward to opening our doors once again to these aspiring writers. It’s unique to find a place in the heart of a city that you can call home and stay for free. It’s something I’m really proud of.

Can you share a little bit about the responsibility of being a boss and how you keep the spirit of Shakespeare and Company alive while also forging a legacy of your own?

I dislike the word ‘boss’. I feel like it has a lot of negative connotations, and I really try to think more in a team mentality. I like, for example, that since Covid, we hold morning meetings with everyone in a circle, and it’s a chance to bring up a question, make a comment, or just talk about a book you like. There are days when it can feel quite heavy to have all that responsibility. It certainly did during Covid, but there are other days (most days!) when it feels a lot more stimulating.

I often liken the bookshop to a beehive because it feels like there is such a buzz of activity, and entering all the different rooms and different floors, you can encounter readers excited about books, people working there who are receiving new books and listening to loud music and making jokes together, and then there are web orders being piled up with one of the web teams’ dogs as the mascot of the day under upstairs, and there are conversations and debates around what to publish next, or a conversation about the latest podcast or event we had.

Legacy? I’m usually caught up with more practical things like, ‘why is this spotlight not working anymore?’ or ‘must find somewhere to buy mince pies in Paris for Jeanette Winterson’s event’, or ‘the door’s not closing properly, need to call a carpenter’, so I don’t know. Legacy isn’t high on the list!


Photography by Hugo Clair Torregrosa courtesy of Shakespeare and Company, Paris.


Photography by Hugo Clair Torregrosa courtesy of Shakespeare and Company, Paris.

Your store has had the unique experience of pre-dating (and surviving) the rise of internet shopping in a time when many independent retailers are being forced to close shop. As a long-time bookstore owner, what are your observations when it comes to how readers consume literature? Do you think it will change in the future? What works (and what doesn’t) about running a bookstore in the digital age?

The Independent Bookshop is dead. A couple hundred years ago or so, I hear it was killed by the bicycle. About 100 years after that, it was the moving picture shows that did the awful deed. If the indie bookshop didn’t die when supermarkets began selling books, then it surely met its end when chains moved into its neighbourhood. It was killed once again by online retailers, this time almost fatally so, right before e-readers raised that final dagger.

I think there’s no comparison between purchasing something online and visiting an independent bookshop. There’s that lovely book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, in which he describes bookshops as a place of both solitude and gathering. I think that’s very true. Being around others who care about books and enjoy human interaction with a bookseller. I always feel at home whenever I’m in a room full of books. There’s something open to the world, uplifting, and optimistic about it, I find. The experience of gathering and convening, of course, the curation of the books that are unique to each bookstore, and that sense of serendipity that you find in bookshops. I liked hearing a visiting author say, “I came here to find something I wasn’t looking for.”

I also have the impression that there is an appreciation for the physical space: we’re in the shadow of Notre Dame, next to the oldest tree in Paris and the beautiful Seine (that supposedly flows through the city in twists and turns because she doesn’t want to leave the city), and of course, the biggest outdoor bookshelf in the world: the bouquinistes! The bookshop itself, my father claimed, was his unwritten novel and every corner was a chapter out of his unfinished book. It’s very personal, and I think that is conveyed to anyone who steps into the labyrinth and finds themselves getting lost the way you might get lost in a book.

As a follow-up to the last question, what, in your opinion, makes having a physical space to buy and discuss books so crucial?

This question brings to light events. With bookstore readings, it’s an amazing opportunity to come into contact with the minds behind the books you’re reading and hear authors talk about why it was important to them to tell that story, for example. It’s another opportunity to gather and connect with one another—a way for us to feel connected. I find the opposite is true with the experience of being online, which I find very dividing and isolating and often puts people in boxes. Rebecca Solnit said so eloquently in her event here that reading shows how leaky categories are and how you can’t say all men or all Parisians think such and such. That “leakiness” of categories is something to be celebrated, and I think those events are opportunities to reach out to one another and hear one another's point of view.

Photos are famously not permitted inside Shakespeare and Company. When was this decision made, and in your experience, how does it change the way customers experience the store?

Yes, it may seem mean of us, contemptuous even, that we don’t allow visitors to take photos in the bookshop. I love taking photos myself, and many of us on the team are very much connected to our phones, but we had to make it a general rule; otherwise, it was becoming overwhelming. It’s an invitation to be here now—something I am so often reminding myself! “Pay Attention. / Be Astonished.” As goes the line of Mary Oliver. Be available to go down whatever tunnel a book takes you, and let others do the same.

Can you share a favourite encounter with an author or poet?

The bookstore has had a long-standing relationship with many writers from the Beat Generation. One of them was Jack Hirschman. Something about him was like a bear (his beard and long, wispy hair? His gigantic hug?). He read his poems here with a low, booming voice that made everyone stand still, a flask of vodka in his hand. Two colleagues of mine were in the writer’s residence when Jack stepped out of his bedroom, stark naked from the waist down. He gave them both a friendly punch in the arm, a wide cheeky grin, and squeezed past them to get a chocolate, then sauntered back into the bedroom, baring his bottom. Here’s one of his poems I’ve shared with many, many friends:


Go to your broken heart.

If you think you don’t have one, get one. To get one, be sincere.

Learn sincerity of intent by letting

life enter because you’re helpless, really,

to do otherwise.

Even as you try escaping, let it take you

and tear you open

like a letter sent

like a sentence inside

you’ve waited for all your life

though you’ve committed nothing.

Let it send you up.

Let it break you, heart.

Broken-heartedness is the beginning

of all real reception.

The ear of humility hears beyond the gates.

See the gates opening.

Feel your hands going akimbo on your hips,

your mouth opening like a womb

giving birth to your voice for the first time.

Go singing whirling into the glory

of being ecstatically simple.

Write the poem.


Photography by Hugo Clair Torregrosa courtesy of Shakespeare and Company, Paris.


Sylvia Whitman.

Given the impressive history of Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman’s “This store has rooms like chapters in a novel” on the chalkboard outside the shop is a befitting statement. Are there any secrets about Shakespeare and Company that you can divulge—a cherished object, a wild encounter that has eluded the history books, or a defining feature that one passing through might not know about?

If books could speak! It probably has to be anecdotes from tumbleweed stays.

The man who slept in the antiquarian for seven years and refused to open up to interested customers on days he “wasn’t in the mood”. The young woman who spent the night re-alphabetising the fiction section by title. We didn’t have the heart to tell her it’s supposed to be by author, so for the duration of her stay (a week, no less), we had to rummage through A and T (the) to find most of the titles. The young man who lost the key late one night and attempted to climb the façade only to fall and break his leg.

A reader has 24 hours in Paris, and their first stop is Shakespeare and Company. Can you curate a stack of five books for them to read?

  • Paris by Julian Green

“I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.”

A bilingual edition from a 20th-century American writer writing in French, Green takes the reader around different quartiers, observing the many small details.

  • The Seine by Elaine Sciolino

This is not just a book about a river, but the history of a city told through the central character, who has always been present. There’s the great flood of 1910, the history of the different bridges, the clean-up campaign, and, of course, the romance. Sequana is the original word for the Seine, and she is the goddess of healing.

  • Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Oh, Jean Rhys! Her novels are like dimly lit cafes where you sip red wine while observing the patrons tucked into the darkness around you. There is melancholy in her writing, and yet it’s bewitching. Good Morning, Midnight—so evocative of Paris. It was one of the first books I read after returning to the city in my early 20s.

  • Ma Vie à Paris by Astier de Villatte

You'll need a guide to Paris if you are here, and the absolute best is by Astier de Villatte. It’s enlightening even to those who have been here 20 years. They list everything from cabarets, a bird hospital, life drawing, lawyers, tricks and jokes, and (my favourite) a long list of bookshops. Only the essentials!

  • The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Naughty, timeless, and funny. We meet this most likeable heroine, still wearing her evening dress in the morning from the night before, pink hair, and a hangover, drifting down the boulevard St. Michel. Paris in the 50s, and this young Romantic American who is looking for comedic adventure and to conquer the city!

One extra, please!

Maigret novels by Georges Simenon

Mystery writer Simenon has written many, many books, and most of them are based in Paris. He captures the city and, particularly, the social relations between its residents. His main character flâneurs through the city, evoking the cafe and street life around him, and, of course, there is a case to be solved.

In a dream lineup, which three writers or poets (living or dead) would you invite to read at the shop?

They are all dead because this seems to be the occasion.

Shakespeare (obviously!), Virginia Woolf. So many of my reading paths and thoughts lead back to Woolf. James Baldwin. Possibly one of the most articulate writers ever. This makes for quite the dinner conversation—not sure there will be time to eat.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of opening their own bookstore?

I just finished a book called Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop by Alba Donati. It ends with a lovely manifesto for aspiring booksellers, so if we’re allowed to share it, here it is:

“1. Live your life reading.

2. Welcome the people walking through your door as readers, not customers.

3. Never fancy yourself better than your readers.

4. Pay attention to what your readers ask for — it will open up new horizons.

5. Never betray your readers by recommending the wrong book.

6. Pick ‘your’ authors and give them visibility.

7. Honour Sylvia Beach [American bookseller and publisher], every day of the week.

8. Always offer a cup of tea.

9. Flowers—don’t forget flowers.

10. Remember to celebrate Virginia, Emily, Jane, and all the others.”

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