It is Impossible For a Parisian to Resist the Desire to Flick Through the Old Volumes Laid Out by a Bookseller

Heather Hartley

BG-Aperitif-dc2Recently, over espressos at the Shakespeare and Company Café, I caught up with Adam Biles, who has been the Events and Communications Manager at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop since November 2015.

Adam, whose debut novel Feeding Time will be out this August in the UK, spoke about everything from rare books to interesting literary marriages to the first public reading of Naked Lunch (it fortuitously happened at the bookshop).


Heather Hartley: When you think about the shop, what are the first words that come to mind?

Adam Biles: That it’s a living space. I think that’s very important.

HH: How is it a living space?

AB: It’s living in the sense of the Tumbleweeds who physically live in the shop and there’s also idea of the shop itself as a living being. The shop has a very rich history and there are many projects happening right now—there are lots of interesting things going on and a lot coming up.

HH: And they’re led by Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter and owner of the shop who became Manager in 2006, and her partner, David Delannet. What’s been happening recently?

AB: The café opened in October last year, and there’s a new children’s section that opened the same month. We have a regular series of evening events and we’re publishing a book about the history of the shop that’s being led by the Editor for the bookshop, Krista Halverson that will be available in the bookshop this July and then around the world this September.

I hope that people feel all of this when they come here—what the shop has become. That they don’t come just for the history but also for what the shop is doing right now.

HH: And now with the café you can hang out even more . . . You mentioned Tumbleweeds and George Whitman told The Paris Magazine (first published by the shop in 1967) that, “Like many of my compatriots, I am something of a tumbleweed drifting in the wind.” Shakespeare has a great and long tradition of welcoming writers, artists and visitors to come and stay in the shop itself. What does being a Tumbleweed mean?


AB: For visitors and customers coming in, one of the first things that they’ll notice is that beds are scattered amongst the books. And on a practical level, being a Tumbleweed means you get to sleep in the bookshop, you get to live amidst the books.

We generally ask Tumbleweeds to work for a couple hours—help open and close the store and help set up for events. They are really important for events because they’re sort of the heavy lifters: they set the chairs and stage up and serve the wine afterwards.

I think there are two sides [to being a Tumbleweed]: the first one being that they get to live and experience a city in a bit more of a relaxed way while getting some time to write.

HH: And there’s a direct connection with the shop. Maybe the city kind of unfolds around them.

AB: And the other side is that it’s a way of spreading a little bit of George’s philosophy that Sylvia continues today. There’s that famous quote written above the library door, “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”** It’s one of George’s founding philosophies and it’s a great way of encouraging people to live by that example.

HH: And that philosophy is ongoing today? 

AB: Yes, with Sylvia and David. It’s very important to them to keep the Tumbleweed program going and it’s a way to continue the good work that George started. It’s essential to the spirit of the shop.

HH: And another part of the spirit is the events. There’s such a wonderful, rich series of readings. Can you speak more about the tradition of having events here—have there always been readings?

AB: George started the readings not long after he opened the shop.

HH: He opened it in 1951?

AB: Yes. Readings became semi-regular fixtures and when there were writers in town, friends of his, or people he’d been in touch with, he would organize something, most often poetry readings. There were some famous instances—Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso stripping naked for a poetry reading, and also William Burroughs giving the first public airing to Naked Lunch in the shop.

 When I came to Paris eleven years ago, there was the long established tradition of poetry readings on Monday nights. I attended a lot of them. They generally took place upstairs [in the library].

About six or seven years ago, Jemma Birrell first came on and began organizing the events and since then they have really developed. I took on this role [of Events and Communications Manager] at a bookshop with such a strong history and such a long record of fantastic events and I thought about how best to step into the shoes of Jemma Birrell and Laura Keeling [both previous Events and Communications Managers] and how I could take the events forward.

HH: And you came in and took on the role—along with some good coffee from the new café. The events are just amazing for the spring and summer to come. With all different kinds of writers, that’s what I find.

AB: [The events] started with a concentration in poetry and then both poetry and fiction became the two mainstays. And one of my principal objectives is to enlarge that to nonfiction as well—current affairs, and we’d like to have a lot more political writers, and also subjects like popular science and mathematics. We hosted Cédric Villani who won the Fields Medal a couple of years ago. And that kind of material is a rich area for expansion I think.

HH: You have events that deal specifically with criticism as well.

AB: Yes. We have the main series of readings and then we have some curated series. There’s the Art of Criticism, run by Lauren Elkin, a real critic herself, who invites literary critics to the shop to talk about their practices. And there’s Philosophers in the Library that is on a bit of a hiatus at the moment because Terry Craven who organized it has unfortunately left Paris.

HH: Thinking about the books themselves, what section of the store do you turn and return to?

AB: I found, kind of to my surprise, the antiquarian has become a real focus for me. I think part of it is because I organize many events and I get given so many books it would be very easy for my library to triple or quadruple in size over the course of a few years . .

HH: If not over a few months—

AB: Or maybe even a few months and it’s awakened my interest in rare books and suddenly the value of having a first edition, or something signed, or something quite particular and that sort of surprised me.


HH: And there so many wonderful things in the antiquarian, at any given time.

AB: Yes, Henry Miller letters, nice first edition Salingers which will be mine one day.

HH: What are some of the sections that are the most popular?

AB: There’s of course Paris interest, because we do have tourists who come in for iconic texts—the Lost Generation with writers like Hemingway and Joyce, also the Beat Generation, many of whom I mentioned spent time at the shop. Also French literature translated into English seems to be very popular and The Little Prince as well which is a constant bestseller for us.

HH: Those are some of the books that visitors and customers buy regularly. What are some of the recommendations of the booksellers?

AB: The great thing about our booksellers is that they have a wide range of interests, and are all very well read. And that background is combined with [the work of] Linda Fallon, our head book buyer. We have the iconic titles and also an incredible list of contemporary writing—whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or poetry—so for example recently we’ve had included on our list of books Ferrante, Knausgård, [and books for] others who have more specific interests in things like science fiction, there’s Ursula Le Guin and poetry as well, with poets who have certain associations with the shop that people might not have come across so easily like Ted Joans or Langston Hughes.

HH: What are you currently reading?

AB: Right now, Janine di Giovanni’s The Morning They Came For Us in preparation for our event [that took place June 6th]. Otherwise, the most recent published Knausgård, and I’ve got a few books lined up for the summer. I’d also like to take some time to discover the work of Alan Garner, after an event with Erica Wagner about First Light, a book she edited celebrating Garner’s work.

And after doing an event with Sarah Bakewell who wrote about the existentialist philosophers, [in At the Existentialist’s Café, Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails], I’m interested to read Merleau-Ponty so that’s a target for the summer.

HH: Can you tell us about the fabulous new book about the bookshop that’s on its way out, Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart? It’s both a new and an old book in some ways—

AB: It’s a book about the shop’s history and it’s the first one that has been written specifically about the history of the shop. [As I mentioned] it’s edited by Krista Halverson who came over from San Francisco where she was working for Zoetrope magazine. She’s also written the introduction. There’s a foreword by Jeanette Winterson and an afterword by Sylvia Whitman.

The first mammoth task was sorting the archives and deciding what to include in the book and what not to include.

Krista has led the project, first organizing the archives because there were one hundred years of archives in no particular order. There wasn’t an organized filing system, so you would find bank statements mixed with Tumbleweed biographies mixed with train tickets mixed with a copy of Anaïs Nin’s last will and testament all pressed together in George’s bookshelves.

Each decade has its own introduction written by Krista and then in between, for the story of each decade, the people who have been associated with the shop tell the story. So it might be former Tumbleweeds, writers who have stayed here, friends of George’s, or friends of Sylvia’s.

HH: To completely borrow a question from the Tin House Bookseller Spotlight interviews: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?

AB: My instinctive reaction—although I’m not quite sure how well we’d get along—would be Henry Miller from Tropic of Cancer, his fictionalized persona in the book.

HH: And he has a history here too.

AB: Yes, he came by the shop quite a lot. I say I’m not sure we’d get along because he lived a much more outrageous, decadent life than I do. But it would be great to follow him around as an observer.

HH: You’re a writer and your debut novel Feeding Time comes out in August. What’s it like to be a writer working in the bookshop?

AB: It’s incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by so many books and interesting people and readers. And to read so many excellent books for events as well, books that I might not have stumbled upon otherwise but having had them pressed in my hand, they take you off into unexpected, different directions.

HH: Kind of like different chapters entirely, metaphorically speaking. You find yourself looking into a subject and being interested in it or learning about something new or that you’d never imagined before.

AB: And I think that’s one of the most important roles today of a bookshop. When so much information is available and exists online, what a bookshop is still essential for is to make those unexpected connections. Because the selection of books is limited, that means that it has to be curated. Which means we’re not going to have every book but the books we’ve got have been specially selected. You might come in for classical fiction and you might end up leaving with a work on current affairs. And I think that’s really important for the way that people and ideas interact.

HH: It also seems to be the way that the shop is set up, physically set up, that you move around one corner and find a new section that veers off into another section that leads to another corner where you find something else.

AB: With George, he organized books by what he called “interesting literary marriages” so books he thought should be next to each other and that in some way complimented each other.

HH: Has that organizing principle of the bookshop changed?

AB: Now there are sections and alphabetization and there’s still the chance for random encounters and unexpected discoveries.


Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim
 (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.

Adam Biles is the Events Manager at Shakespeare and Company. He came to Paris in 2005, thinking he might stay a year, and never left. Writer and translator, his books include The Deep (Éditions de la Houle), Grey Cats, and Feeding Time, his first novel, published by Galley Beggar Press in 2016.

*The title is a quote by Gérard de Nerval, from Les Filles du feu, Les Chimères: “Il est impossible, pour un Parisien, de résister au désir de feuilleter de vieux ouvrages étalés par un bouquiniste.

**This quote comes from the Bible, Hebrews, and is George’s adaptation of it.