A couple of weeks ago I visited Paris to meet up with a gorgeous old friend (she’s not old, she is very young and glamorous, but we have been friends for an alarmingly long time). We lived together at university, she is Norwegian and I am English, and we barely ever get to see each other anymore. She is one of my very favourite people, and it had just been too long. So we booked a weekend in Paris, to have a good old catch up.
Our apartment arrangements were changed at the last minute by a particularly elusive Air B&B host, and amazingly we ended up in the building next door to the one my sister and I had stayed in for a month in the summer of 2000. All of which felt pretty cosmic.
The street, rue St Severin, is just around the corner from Shakespeare & Co., the famous Parisian English language bookshop. I have always been relatively unenthusiastic about this bookshop – since a couple of visits during our stay in 2000. Which I know probably seems odd. It is a bookshop. In my favourite city in the world (second favourite only to Sheffield, of course, if anyone work related is reading this). I felt like it was full of tourists, and that this was a bad thing. And that it was pretentious, with people working there who cared more about working at Shakespeare & Co. than they did about the books. I think one of them was dismissive of my no doubt inept attempts at making bohemian Parisian conversation, and so I decided that the whole bookshop was overrated and that I would knowingly say “It’s not that great” whenever people asked me about it.
But the truth is that it is that great. We paid it a visit this time. As we were just around the corner it seemed rude not to. It is a bookshop after all. In my (second) favourite city in the world. And it was bloody wonderful. The books were incredible; a genuinely fantastic selection. The people working there were lovely and friendly (not that it would have mattered one bit if they weren’t).
So, I was left questioning. What has changed in those 16 years? Me, or the bookshop?
Is it that I am more bien dans ma peau? I don’t walk in wondering if I will appear bohemian and interesting, and I don’t judge a place and its people on how they respond to me.
Is it that I am more tolerant? That Paris doesn’t have to be entirely populated by just me, and lots of French people smoking gitanes and being fascinating. It’s ok that there are American and Australian people there too. And that they probably love this city just as much as I do.
Is it that I am less contrary? That if something is widely considered to be brilliant, maybe it is just brilliant. I don’t need to have a controversial opinion on it.
To add to this little existential crisis I was appropriately enough having in Shakespeare and Co., they have now also taken over the shop next door, and turned it into a cafe that could not be less traditionally Parisian. You can get a vegan protein shake (whatever that may be), a flat white coffee, or a spinach and spirulina smoothie. And this too shocked the hell out of me. Shakespeare and Co., for all its international company of staff, has always had the ultimate Paris garret life sleeping amongst the bedbugs reading your Hemingway reputation.
But somehow this cafe makes me love it even more. Paris is everything that I dream of. It doesn’t need to fit in my little box of what it is allowed to be.
There are a lot of a reasons to visit a great bookshop. Maybe one more is to show you that you’ve grown up a lot in 16 years. I’m sorry that I misjudged you Shakespeare and Co.
And yes… I bought a book. After it nursed me through an existential crisis, it was the least I could do for this place.