Tumbleweeding at Shakespeare & Co

Three Weeks a Weed… an ex-UBS Otago staffer in a Paris bookshop…

For a Tumbleweed, the day usually begins at 8:00am.

I only have to twist an inch to fall off my narrow mattress onto the stone floor, my legs are covered in subtle mosquito bites because it is summer and my eyes are a little dark from burning the candle at both ends, but there is no better feeling than waking to a room full of books with the bells of Notre Dame chiming next door. Romantic, I know.

I stuff my bedding into one of the benches, heave the mattress back onto it’s seat and tumbleweedgo through the doors into the studio to have a quick, cramped shower. Then my fellow Tumbleweeds and I will pack a bag of food and go upstairs to binge on muesli and coffee in the old studio of George Whitman.

Shakespeare and Company is a dusty, vibrant old bookstore nestled in the very heart of Paris. Opened first in 1951, the building, once a monastery, was named after the bard on the four-hundredth anniversary of his death in 1964 by Mr. George Whitman. The name, inspired by the original Shakespeare and Co. owned by Sylvia Beach, has become somewhat a beacon of hope and refuge for dreamers. Beach’s store attracted such writers as Hemingway, Joyce and Eliot.  Whitman’s attracted Ginsberg, Nin and Burroughs. Something in the water I suspect.

paris_shakespeareco_portraitsofeleganceSince the beginning writers and readers have been tumbling in and since the beginning they have been welcomed with open arms and a great benefit-of-the-doubt nature by Whitman to sleep in the shop on the little beds that perform as benches by day, in exchange for two hours of work. Thus, a community was established. Today the shop is run by the incredibly kind Sylvia Whitman, daughter of George and all around Queen of multi tasking. If you are lucky you might catch her in the early morning drifting through like a fairy with a coffee, or in the afternoon performing tasks that involve heavy lifting, taking the dirty work that would normally be thrust upon fresh employees. I believe Sylvia is how the shop has remained so true to its spirit, avoiding corruption and keeping it’s mind and doors open to new folks who pass through, such as myself. The staff also are incredibly patient, considering the many tourists who dash in only for a quick photo, not even pausing to browse, and they have done a wonderful job of not murdering any Tumbles who have come to stay, considering it can’t be easy training new employees almost every week.

The job of the Tumbleweed is to help with opening up the shop (this includes the café next door also), then hang around to fold a few bags if necessary. It is then normal to disperse for reading or writing until the obligatory two hour shift, in which the Tumble will either shelve books, help customers, work in the storage store down the street or assist Sylvia with some heavy lifting (my speciality). To work as hard as one can affirms a place to sleep, whether it be on the floor of the library or in the poetry corner. After the shift, one is free to read, write or enjoy Paris. The final job is to be back at the shop by 10:45 to help with closing up, then after 11:00 it is only natural to spend the rest of the night beside the Seine drinking three euro wine. I came to Paris with one intention: to Tumbleweed at this infamous store. And here I now sit, in the studio graced by Shakespeare-and-Co.-Paris-Bookstorehundreds of others like me, and while if I think about this for too long, it is disheartening, there is also something inexplicably magical in that which makes me think… do I really need to go?

While the concept of dropping out of Uni to remain in the Garden of Eden is far fetched, I can’t help but play with the idea in my sleep. But no matter, the story goes a Tumble always returns. The vital thing is to be grateful for what you are given and above all else: be kind to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.

Jessica Thompson Carr, born in 1996, here in Dunedin is of Maori/NZ European descent, and is currently on a student exchange in Lyon, France, for one semester, taking weekend trips to Paris as well as other places for hiking. She aspires to be a writer and living at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop has stimulated that. She studied English and Art History and returns to New Zealand next year to complete her degree and begin the hunt for writing work.
Find her on Instagram: jesscat8484 or email her: jessthomspon880@gmail.com
Paris, August 2016

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