Literary WWOOFING

Literary WWOOFING

When I was ten my sister and I joined my parents as they took conferences around Europe and a few other places for six months. Of all the cities we visited, Paris was the one that ground its roots into my head. This was due in part to the charming architecture and array of romantic art galleries (I was a little culture nerd - still am), not to mention the buttery pastries on sale at every corner; even in Mc Donalds. But the cause for my love of the city was a book shop called Shakespeare and Company. 

Quick history lesson: based in the very heart of Paris, opposite Notre Dame on the banks of the Seine, the English speaking and reading bookstore was established in 1951 by George Whitman. Originally a monastery, (you can see this in the stone floors and wooden ceilings), the store was inspired by the original Shakespeare and Co, owned by a woman named Sylvia Beach in 1919. It was a meeting place for writers of the Lost Generation, notably Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald and Stein. Remarkably, George managed to lure writers of the Beat generation such as Anais Nin, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Henry Miller and many more, into his own shop, establishing a literary community of the highest quality. During the Great Depression, George set out into the world on a “hobo adventure” with only $40 in his pocket. He encountered countless acts of generosity and kindness on his travels, inspiring the philosophy: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” So when writers, artists and intellectuals came to the doorstep penniless and hungry, George welcomed them into the shop with open arms, setting them up on the floor or the benches that customers read on during the day for a few good nights rest. The guests were nicknamed ‘Tumbleweeds’ that “drift in and out with the winds of chance,” and they repaid the kindness shown to them by working in the store for two hours a day and assisting with opening and closing.

To get in was a challenge. I arrived one morning with the illusion that my passion for the shop which had lasted some ten years was enough to woo the staff into opening their hearts to my lonesome traveller persona and immediately offer me a bed. I had to return the next week and ask every day if a new space had opened up. Tumbleweeding is popular and all the artsy kids want to do it, particularly in the summer. July is busy, August is when a calm hits. So I persisted, attempting to play myself off as a passionate writer with a great personality who was NOT crazy or too odd (or looking for free accommodation only, which I certainly was not). They have to be careful.

Eventually I was sent an email that a spot was ready for me. I bounced over to my hostel and cancelled my bookings, then lugged my backpack into Shakespeare and Company to set up. I’d planned to stay only a week, then travel around Italy. I did not think I would go back. I was given a tour of the shop then eagerly offered myself to take the last shift of the day, 9:00 to 11:00pm, which is when we close. Because the shifts are so short, the staff make you work. Hard. This involves shelving books, re-organising the overstock drawers, sticker-ing in the storage shop, tidying the shelves, running errands around Paris and, if ever Sylvia is around, there is usually some heavy lifting to do. One time I did get to walk Colette, the silky black dog, as a part of my shift, which was a damn treat. 

Each morning I gathered my bedding and stuffed it into a bench that opened up and flipped my narrow foam mattress up from the floor onto another bench so that customers could sit on it and read. In the first week we didn’t eat breakfast, we drank filter coffee which was sometimes free for Tumbles from the cafe beside the shop. We met outside the store, four Tumbleweeds and a collection of staff, and opened up the cafe, then the bookshop for 10:00am. Then we folded some bags and received our shift times, usually 12-2, 2-4, 4-6 and a random 7-9 but it depended on which staff member was on the job of assigning. Then we were free to read, write and read some more. 

This first week I completed my first draft of a lil somethin’ somethin’. Living in a bookstore, I was immediately confronted with the fierce motivation to read and write as much as possible, a feeling I hadn’t encountered much since before university. My routine became basic but not boring (at least not to me): shower, open cafe then store, fold bags, coffee, base self in the cafe until shift to write and read, do shift, return to cafe to write and read, maybe go for a walk, crepe in the evening, close shop, wine by the seine, read until 2 or 3 in the morning, repeat next day. Easy. This week flew by but I caught hang of the ropes enough to return after three weeks travel in Italy to live in the shop for another two weeks. That next round was quite different from the first in the sense that I became more immersed and, like in any relationship (my love for the bookstore was as strong as a love for a person I reckon), I experienced more convoluted emotions. I wrote this in my diary in my first week at the bookshop: “it’s like a yoga retreat, disappearing into a room to ‘meditate’ (read/write) and emerging peaceful in a daze, happy and revived. It feels very healthy.” 

Let me tell you something you’ll already know if you are one: the longer you spend around writers, the more angst you develop, the more you hate them, the more you hate yourself. Its vicious, and at the time I thought it could potentially spoil my wonderland experience, but in truth it only added to the experience, forcing me to get a grip. Going in you think how magical it’s going to be, but people end up affecting your time there regardless of your mindset, whether it be noisy customers in the shop or that one Tumble who doesn’t quite agree with you. It is inevitable in such close quarters, and the only thing one can do is put things into perspective. Some people are annoying, many pretentious and nearly all of them talk down to you. I spent a great deal of time questioning my intelligence, testing my voice in the studio when I was alone to see if I sounded more serious with a deeper tone, toying with the idea of acting moody to be taken more seriously. 

In the end I decided it was better to keep doing my thing and continue being friendly, confident in the thought that I would prove them all wrong one day. Don’t let the pseudo intellects and genuine geniuses get you down, I decided, I was in Paris for god's sake. When you start judging yourself too harshly you miss the point of the place- Shakespeare and Co is not an Oxford establishment that picks and chooses its students. It is an institution of another kind, raw and more spiritual, inviting to all who have the passion to learn and work on their art, indifferent to those who are only there to sharn about it.

The last few weeks I spent in the shop I made wonderful Tumble friends. We ate breakfast together in the morning, either silently reading or passionately discussing our different cultures and the state of the world today (absolute mess), we cooked dinner together, eating in George Whitman’s old studio with the record player blaring, always a bottle or two of red wine at hand, healthy meals followed by something sweet, talking about books we read, were yet to read, or perusing through the biographies of past Tumbleweeds. 

It is a tradition that George adopted early into the Tumble program. Back in the ‘60s the police thought all these artists who came to stay were no good communist ruffians, so they requested each resident write out a biography of themselves, explaining their backgrounds and reasons for being there. George, of course, turned something unpleasant into something special, and now the studio shelves are stuffed with biographies dating from the early ‘60s to today. I have written two biographies and intend to write a third before I come home.

On my final note I have compiled a list of 20 tips and tricks for getting by as a Tumbleweed of Shakespeare and Co if ever a scarfie chooses to go:

  1. No photos in the shop.
  2. You will forever be burning the candle at both ends. Invest in nap time and strong coffee.
  3. If you chose to set yourself to writing in the café you WILL get the odd person (stress odd) who stares at you for too long a time or even talks to you about the time Kerouac once asked them if they wanted sex. Just keep a firm face and say: “I’m very sorry. I don’t want to be rude, but I have a deadline and must write.”
  4. No photos in the shop.
  5. The studio keys are the only symbol of authority you get. Try and keep them round your neck for your shift otherwise people will think you are a weird customer who likes to arrange the books.
  6. Tell tourists about the well. There is a well in the middle of the shop in which people can slip money for the “starving writers”. If you get to talking with any customers, tell them a bit of history then point out the well with a sad face (bonus tip: suck in cheeks for struggling artiste look. Your eyes should carry the job through though. They will be fairly bloodshot and dark from no sleep).
  7. No photos. In the shop.
  8. The studio belongs to everyone in the daytime so eat, sleep and shit away! Just don’t bring any ‘civilians’ up. Tumbles only.
  9. The bells of Notre Dame are beautiful except on Bank Holidays. Try get away on these days. They go on for hours.
  10. No. Photos.
  11. Colette, Sylvia’s big black dog, may need a walk now and then. Always offer.
  12. In. Shop.
  13. Don’t force books into their places. Loosey goosey is key. The rest can go into overstock drawers.
  14. If you want to be a happy writer, don’t go to the writer workshop on Sunday. Just don’t.
  15. Seine. Wine. Cheap. Always get red. Yum.
  16. No photos in le shop.
  17. Read, write, eat. Don’t freak.
  18. Try and get out of the shop now and then to really see Paris. The temptation to stay in all day will be great, and most of the time it’s fine because you are clearly there to write and read, but Pompidou art gallery is only a fourteen minute walk away and they have Picasso!
  19. Always ask questions. Never guess where a book goes.
  20. Tumbles can take photos in the shop when the shop is closed but other than that... you know.
This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2016.
Posted 11:11am Saturday 8th October 2016 by Jessica Thompson Carr.