I was living in Paris in 2001 when the Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore announced a visit by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary beat generation publisher and owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Books. I showed up early excited to meet and photograph Ferlinghetti but was told when I got to the store that because of his age, he’d confused the dates. He’d been in Paris a month earlier. To make up for missing the main attraction the bookstore hired stilt dancers to entertain us.
For me, the exciting thing about photography is not knowing in advance what I’m going to find when I’m shooting, and the need to develop the stories as they unfold in front of me. It forces me into the present moment. I remember in my magazine work days the blank page syndrome “stage fright” before every job. I went out to shoot knowing that something had to turn out, that I had to get the story, and not knowing what it would be until I was doing it. Some people like to jump out of planes, I chose a career in photography.
The bookstore is named after the original Shakespeare & Company started by Sylvia Beach in 1919. It was a gathering place for writers. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and others hung out there. Sylvia Beach closed the bookstore in 1941 after refusing to sell a book to a Nazi officer. She never reopened it after the war.
Ten years after the original store closed, an Englishman, George Whitman, opened the current bookstore. He stocked the store with English language books and turned the upper floors into a hostel to house and encourage young writers. For a few hours of daily work, the aspiring authors got room and board and time to write.
After the dance performance, I was invited to the private living quarters upstairs to share a meal with the residents.
Whitman named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman after the original Sylvia Beach.
Since her father died in 2011, she has owned and managed the bookstore.