Legendary Paris Bookshop Shakespeare and Company Needs Your Help — Here's How to Save It

As the toll of the pandemic weighs down on independent bookstores, the small businesses are turning to every trick in the book.

'Shakespeare and Co' bookstore
Photo: Marc Piasecki/Getty

Tucked away on the left bank of the Seine in Paris is an unassuming independent English-language bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. Inside its doors, it's so much more than just a store, but rather a creative enclave where writers have gathered for decades, including famous names like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But like so many other small businesses around the globe, the shop has taken a serious hit during the pandemic — and is pleading for help in the midst of France's nationwide lockdown, which started Oct. 30.

"Starting with France's lockdown in March and into autumn, sales at Shakespeare and Company were down 80%," the store's site says. "Like other independent bookshops, we've made an extra effort to increase website orders. While these sales have provided great relief, we realize it is unrealistic to expect an exceptional level of website activity to continue for the unforeseeable number of months when people remain unable to travel."

In late October, the store sent an email to its customers explaining its situation and encouraged supporters to buy a book, according to the Associated Press. As of last Friday, the bookstore had a record 5,000 online orders within a week, compared to its normal 100 — and former French President Francois Hollande even dropped by before the lockdown.

Many around the world have simply wanted to donate because of the place the shop holds in their hearts. "(My father) let people sleep in the bookshop and called them 'tumbleweeds,'" Sylvia Whitman, whose late father George Whitman revived the shop in 1951 after founder of the original store Sylvia Beach closed it in 1941, told AP. "We've had 30,000 people sleep in the bookshop." The price of a stay: read a book a day, help out in the shop for a couple hours, and write a one-page autobiography for the elder Whitman's archives.

That kind of community spirit has long made the store the epicenter of the Parisian literary community. So now Whitman hopes to migrate that community spirit online, by launching the Friends of Shakespeare and Company, a year-long membership program to support the store "financially and spiritually," through 2021. Membership starts at 45€ a year to receive an exclusive quarterly newsletter, and goes up to 500€, which includes quarterly online book clubs with books signed by the authors.

The idea for the program was inspired by Beach, who opened the original store in 1919 and started a similar membership program during the Great Depression, providing exclusive access to readings with authors like T.S. Elliot and Hemingway, who broke his own rule against public events to help the shop, the site says.

While the newfound spotlight is definitely trending in the right direction, the long-term sustainability of an indie bookstore during a global pandemic remains yet to be seen, as shops around the world are crying out for help.

New York City's Strand Bookstore posted a similar appeal on Oct. 23 after seeing a 70% revenue drop this year. "We've survived just about everything for 93 years — the Great Depression, two World Wars, big box bookstores, e-books, and online behemoths," the Strand posted on Facebook. "We are now at a turning point where our business is unsustainable." After the appeal, they saw 25,000 orders in 48 hours, compared to the 300 daily orders they usually receive, according to CBS News.

The city's McNally Jackson also asked for help on social media, noting a 50% drop in sales, and even changing signage on one of their stores to read, "Books curated by real people, not a creepy algorithm."

In St. Louis, African American bookstore EyeSeeMe hesitated to ask for help, but ultimately started a GoFundMe campaign and reached its $25,000 goal.

Over in Portland, Oregon, Powell's City of Books has turned their nose on the problem by launching its own new Unisex Fragrance that it describes as: "Invoking a labyrinth of books; secret libraries; ancient scrolls; and cognac swilled by philosopher-kings, Powell's by Powell's delivers the wearer to a place of wonder, discovery, and magic heretofore only known in literature."

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