1. Shakespeare and Company is an independent bookstore in Paris that caters to English-language readers.
Sylvia Beach originally opened the store in 1919 and writers like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce congregated there, but she had to close it in 1940 when the Nazis occupied Paris.
2. The shop has also served as a home to wandering literary types called Tumbleweeds since the 1950s.
In 1951, an American expatriate named George Whitman opened another English-language bookstore that he eventually renamed Shakespeare and Company in honor of Sylvia Beach. It was a literary haven for Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
3. Molly Dektar, a 23-year-old MFA student at Brooklyn College, lived at Shakespeare and Company in January and June 2013.
After George died in 2011, his daughter Sylvia Whitman (named after Sylvia Beach) took over the shop.
4. “One minute I was a visitor just like any other, and the next minute I was welcomed in to this huge, historic community of writers and expatriates,” she explained.
Young writers are invited to stay at Shakespeare and Company without any form of payment, as long as they work in the bookstore for a couple of hours every day and commit to reading and writing every single day. Molly told BuzzFeed she first went to the shop in January 2013, which is an easier time of year for Tumbleweeds to find lodging.
5. Tumbleweeds also have to write a one-page autobiography of their life, including a photo.
“I spent many happy hours reading these pieces, some overblown or silly, some heartbreakingly poignant,” Molly said. “There are maybe ten thousand.”
6. A typical day for Tumbleweeds starts with breakfast on the go, organizing their work shifts, and making sure the shop is ready to open.
7. “I aimed to read a book a day but it wasn’t entirely possible,” Molly said. “Still, the goal is spiritually important and should be taken seriously.”
During Molly’s stay, some Tumbleweeds tackled this requirement by reading Moby Dick to each other during their free time.
8. “At 10:45 p.m., the Tumbleweeds would gather again for closing,” Molly explained. “Some nights we’d stay in, other nights we’d go out.”
9. “I always liked going to the piano room during the day, and finding hordes of strangers sitting on the bench that became my bed at night,” Molly said.
10. “The most beautiful Tumbleweed bed is the one above the children’s section, behind the velvet drapes,” she explained. “But everyone had their preferences.”
11. All the Tumbleweeds have to share a single key, which can lead to some complications.
Molly said that one time a Tumbleweed couldn’t get back inside, tried to scale the wall of the building to the second floor, and ended up falling and breaking an ankle.
12. Visitors can take any book off the shelves to read for however long they like without being pressured into buying it.
13. “I found the Tumbleweeds and staff all very intimidating at first, because they tend to have huge knowledge about literature,” Molly said. “The shop has such an illustrious history, I felt very small inside it.”
14. “But George used to call Shakespeare and Company ‘a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore,’ and sharing, cooperation, and community are fundamental to the people living there,” she said.
15. “We found so much to do together that we’d joke that there’s probably no worse place to write in Paris than at the bookshop,” she said.
16. “The handmade paintings and illustrations labeling the shop’s various sections seems very much like Sylvia to me — beautiful and real things out in the open for everyone to enjoy, with a sense of faith in humankind.”
17. Molly told BuzzFeed the best thing about staying there was the sense of trust and community. “Because it’s such a rare and lucky experience, the shop brings out everyone’s best side — people are creative and selfless and fascinating.”
18. “But more than that, there’s this feeling that things are better when they are shared,” she said.
19. “As I always remembered when I saw the crowds beginning to enter the shop in the morning to invade what I thought of as my bed, you can’t own any part of the shop or its beautiful tradition, but you can take part in it,” said Molly.
20. “I think every Tumbleweed ends up with a more optimistic sense of human nature.”
21. Molly always encourages any young writer who thinks this sounds appealing to check it out for themselves. “But don’t expect your experience to go a certain way,” she said. “Be willing to go with the favorable winds.”
You can find more of Molly Dektar’s photos and writing over at her blog.
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