Sylvia Whitman: ‘I don’t write stories and I don’t play the piano for visitors'

Article published on Sept. 5, 2012
Article published on Sept. 5, 2012
The young thirtysomething may not fit the folkloric picture one might have of the owner of Shakespeare and Company in Paris. But she has modernised the famous English bookshop's image in recent years, without it losing its soul as a cultural centre and meeting place for young, up-and-coming writers on the left bank of the Seine.
Read more about the mark the modest heiress plans to make on the legendary store

‘One day you will also be able to buy Shakespeare and Company's books online,' Sylvia Whitman informs us, 'Even if I, personally, find reading e-books very boring.' Sylvia, 32, is the third owner of the famous English bookshop on the left bank of the Seine. She follows in the footsteps of Sylvia Beach, her namesake, who ran her own shop with the same name, and George Whitman. Her American-born father passed away in December 2011, and had inherited the name of the bookshop from his neighbour, to open his own little shop opposite the side of the Notre-Dame cathedral in August 1951.

‘After a day working on facebook, twitter and on the shop’s website, all I want to do is to switch off and read a real book,’ explains Sylvia, who is not completely condemning books in digital form. 'They can be really useful for publishers and travellers and to expand readership. When my father read one of the first articles on e-books, he wanted to display them immediately in the entrance because he was always open to innovation.'

Alice, Francis Scott and Jeanette in Wonderland

Sylvia was born in Paris and studied in both England and Scotland (she graduated in history from a university in London), before returning to the bookshop where she grew up. ‘My favourite book changes every week. Most of all I love Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Jeanette Winterson and I often re-read Alice in Wonderland. It reminds me of my childhood.' Sylvia explains the reason why she is so incurably fond of books as a tangible objects. ‘I love them because they can be both a work of art and a friend, reminding you of when you last read them. A house only becomes beautiful when we fill it with books.’

'A house only becomes beautiful when we fill it with books’

We meet Sylvia one afternoon at the end of summer in Shakespeare and Company’s ‘first edition room’, kept under lock and key near the main entrance. She has just come from a meeting and is radiant in a blue polka dot dress. Under Sylvia’s management the bookshop has seen important innovations in recent years: the first inventory of the books the shop owns has been drawn up (49, 000 new books, 5, 000 rare titles and an uncounted and uncountable number of second hand books), a computer and telephone have been introduced amongst the bookcases and a website and accounts on the main social networks have been created. Some actually objected to these new technological innovations. ‘Some people complained but the majority of our customers were pleased,' says Sylvia. 'Now they can find the books that they want while before, with no inventory, they had to rummage through everything.’

Sylvia thanks us for not having to explain the history of the bookshop's beginnings; read 'Shakespeare & Co library: community in Paris' on cafebabel.com

The way the shop handles personnel has also changed. Part-time students have been replaced by full-time shop assistants, joined by the ‘tumbleweed’ of the moment. That is what they call the young writers who are temporarily in residence next door to the bookshop. ‘At the moment we have two Germans, an Iranian, an American and an English guy. They can stay a week,’ explains Sylvia, ‘but in exchange they have to help out in the bookshop, read at least one book a day and write their biographies.' This habit of collating these passing 'tumbleweed'' biographies dates back to the sixties when Paris' prefecture asked George Whitman to let them know when each 'ward' arrived.

Because of this obligation, Shakespeare and Company’s archive has more than 30, 000 ‘tumbleweed’ biographies, some successful authors and some as yet undiscovered talent. This enormous wealth of material, along with that discovered with the inventory, will come together in a book being written on the history of the bookshop. It is the first book dedicated about Shakespeare and Company and will be written by its present owner. ‘I don’t write stories and I don’t play the piano for visitors,' confesses Sylvia. 'When I am in the bookshop, I spend all my time working.' She admits she has another thousand projects in mind. Having launched the Paris literary prize for novelists from around the globe, and FestivalandCo, the literary event where famous authors and the public come together in a huge marquee a few metres from the bookshop (no event was held in 2012 due to George’s death), Sylvia intends to open a literary cafe and an underground cinema in the bookshop. The main obstacle seems to be the lack of space. The shop is in the fifth arrondissement (district - ed) where the rent is sky high. 'When it comes to buying, fast food and souvenir shops always get a better deal than us,' she says.

When asked whether she dreams of discovering and publishing the next James Joyce, Sylvia draws back. ‘Sylvia Beach (who died fifty years ago this year, 2012 - ed) was the first to publish Joyce's Ulysses, who at that time was hardly known. But those were different times.' Sylvia, who wants to keep the spirit of the bookshop alive but does not want to fail the challenge to small booksellers set by the large publishing houses and online shops, is thinking of something else. ‘I would like to buy a printing press for the authors that stay here, to allow them to print their own manuscripts if they can’t find a publisher willing to do it.’ Consider yourself tipped off, aspiring James Joyces.

*Shakespeare and Company, rue de la Bucherie 37, metro station Saint Michel

Images: © Jacopo Franchi/ video (cc) bskahn; owlcavetv/ youtube