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Shakespeare and Company in Paris supported by online sales

The recognised independent bookshop in the heart of the French capital has had to get creative with sales in the wake of Covid-19 

17 December 2020
By Connexion journalist

A memorial plaque is to honour the partner of the founder of Paris’s famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop –and comes as it faces hard times due to the pandemic.

Shakespeare and Company, across the Seine from Notre Dame and one of the best-recognised independent bookshops in the world, has seen sales plummet since March.

Owner Sylvia Whitman said on Facebook: “It is true that, like many independent businesses, we are struggling, trying to see a way forward during this time when we’ve been operating at a loss, with our sales down almost 80% since March.”

Normally, the shop’s wide selection of English-language titles attracts thousands of visitors a year.

However, bookshops are not deemed essential by the government and have been forced to close during both national lockdowns.

An appeal has been launched to save the shop, which was frequented by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and acted as a publishing house for James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses in 1922.

The shop acted as a publishing house for James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses in 1922

Sales have rebounded – there were a record 5,000 online orders in one week in November. In a normal week, the shop usually gets around 100.

The increase caused the shop’s website to crash temporarily.

A campaign called Friends of Shakespeare and Company has also been set up. It allows supporters to sign up for an annual membership, where they can choose to pay from €45 to €500, and beyond.

Members will receive “a bit of the bookshop” four times per year.

This could be a mix of video, audio and new writing, such as a conversation with a celebrated author, a video tour of the bookshop or a new poem from a renowned writer.

Anyone who opts for the €500 package will receive a unique, hand-drawn artwork from contemporary authors Neil Gaiman and Dave Eggers.

The memorial being put up to honour Adrienne Monnier, partner of the shop’s founder Sylvia Beach and a fellow bookshop owner, has been welcomed.

Paris’s deputy mayor in charge of memorials Laurence Patrice said she hopes the plaque will help raise more awareness for bookshops in hard times. She said: “[The timing] falls in well with the Paris city council’s attempts to help bookshops as much as we can because of the trouble they are in with books not being included in the necessary items list during the lockdown.

“Hopefully, we will be able to have a big inauguration when restrictions have eased.”

Monnier and Beach were neighbours in rue de l’Odeon, the original location of the shop, in the interwar years.

This was a time when Paris was the literary capital of the world, with many English and American writers living in the city and contributing to its cultural scene.

Ms Patrice said: “Adrienne was the first in rue de l’Odeon, opening her shop aged just 23 in 1915, and Sylvia Beach arrived in 1922.

“They were not at all competitors. In life, they were lovers and partners, and their two shops complemented each other perfectly.

“Most of what we now think of as bookshop activities – having book launches, musical events, discussions, or being able to borrow books – was pioneered by Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach.”

When Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses, it was Monnier who translated and published the French language version.

Beach closed her shop in 1941 during the Nazi occupation after a run-in with a German officer, and it was never re-opened.

The present Shakespeare and Company shop was opened after the war by George Whitman, the father of current owner Sylvia. Initially called Le Mistral, it changed its name to Shakespeare and Company after the death of Beach in 1962.

France has many independent booksellers, with part of the reason being a law which determines a fixed price for books and which does not allow books to be discounted.

Similar to the old net book agreement in the UK, which lasted from 1900 to 1997, the system allows publishers to fix book prices, guaranteeing booksellers a fixed profit margin for every book sold.

The agreement has come in for criticism for artificially inflating prices, with opponents saying books in France cost much more than elsewhere.

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