I Am Something Of A Tumbleweed

Heather Hartley

I Drifted Into Bookselling

“Like many of my compatriots, I am something of a tumbleweed drifting in the wind,”  George Whitman, founder of Shakespeare and Company Bookshop,  told The Paris Magazine (first published by the shop in 1967). “I drifted into bookselling for no better reason than a passion for books except for the classical reason of all booksellers who are self-employed because they doubt if anyone else would employ them.”

Opening the shop in 1951 on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame, George Whitman opened an entire world to writers, booklovers, bakers, students, storytellers, visitors, visionaries, tap dancers, guitar players, acrobats, editors, movers and shakers and just about anyone in between. And don’t forget the Tumbleweeds. You can find them there late at night, all night: young writers who live in the shop and sleep among the stacks. There are a few criteria to be a Tumbleweed: write your autobiography on one sheet of paper, work in the shop, dedicate some time to your writing project, and read a book every day. These tenets haven’t changed in over fifty years. George welcomed Tumbleweeds throughout his life and his daughter, Sylvia Whitman, who has run the shop for a decade, continues the tradition.

Over the years, more than 40,000 people have stayed in the shop. Right now, it’s Nathan, Tom and Holly. Tomorrow it could be you.

Photo by Atlas Obscura

On a grayish, gusty afternoon last week, I spoke with the Tumbleweeds in the Writer’s Studio on the first floor (that boasts one loft-like bed lodged above the staff lockers).

Sleep Is For Tortoises

Tom Hodges: I wake up in my berth over the Children’s Section in a little bunk right above it. I’m almost 6’ 5’’ and I just fit in there—and no more. I love the idea that at the end of every day I shelve myself after shelving books.

Nathan Loceff: I’m sleeping near the Poetry Nook. It’s kind of quiet, sort of separated out. Tom reads us a bedtime story most every night. Right now, it’s Alice in Wonderland. We’re almost through it all.

Holly Devon: I tried a little bit of everything. I started in the Writer’s Studio, over the Children’s Section—got some bruised shins—now I sleep in the Piano Room. It’s the coziest spot, all enclosed, with hardly any light so in the morning you can sleep forever.

Tom: I like to get up early. Sleep is for tortoises.

Now And Then I Seem To Make The Mistake Of Getting Employed

Tom: I always knew I wanted to come back to the shop at some point. [He stayed in November and December 2012 and is just back for a while.] I left university [St Andrews in Scotland], did a lot of things—worked in the Channel Islands, had a dream job of drinking whisky for a living. I quit it and came back here.

Holly: I had a job in New Orleans in a bookstore and a wonderful customer who bought Ulysses—I did my senior thesis on it—they started talking about the shop and mentioned you could stay here. For whatever reason I thought I’d be able to [stay at the shop] . . . it was a feeling. I got a one-way ticket to Paris and I showed up.

Tom: I came back every day to the shop til a place opened up.

Nathan: I started writing my novella in Armenia and had a layover in Paris. Instead of staying two hours here, I changed my ticket to stay for two months.

Holly: You have to just show up.

Nathan: You need to speak with Sylvia about staying here. I would just hang out at the shop all day. Go to the tea parties.

Tom: You have to want to become a part of it.

Holly: Timing is everything.

For No Better Reason Than A Passion for Books

Holly: One night before going to sleep I noticed these books right next to me that happened to be books I needed to know about. I just started seeing all these things . . . the one I just finished is The Price of Revolution.

Nathan: I think of my section as Fiction. It’s what I read most, what I know better than any others. Right now I’m reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Tom: I guard the Antiquities section. Try to do most of the shelving myself. It’s sort of my section. Otherwise I’m onto Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

I Would My Horse Had The Speed Of Your Tongue

Holly: Next month we’re putting on Much Ado About Nothing. I’m co-directing with Millie, an amazing former Tumbleweed. I’m also playing Beatrice, a part that I like to say I’ve been training for my whole life, since I really like verbal sparring. At one point an enraged Claudio calls Hero “an approved wanton.” It’s developed into a nice nickname for Millie. She’s playing Hero.

Tom: I’m Claudio.

Holly: Putting on Much Ado at the bookshop is incredible, the support we’ve gotten. Sylvia hasn’t hesitated to make the shop’s resources available. She’s been so enthusiastic, the staff too.

Go Fetch To Me A Pint O’ Wine, An’ Fill It In A Silver Tassie

Tom: You get to stay here with a load of books. You’re sent on missions. Sometimes I end up helping with the sound check at readings. I like to have my jobs to do. I usually read Robert Burns into the mic as a warm up to make sure the levels are right. Or I pour wine.

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.