Monday, January 16, 2012

Shakespeare & Co.

Now a local chain in its own right, catering to the university crowds as well as the general public, Shakespeare & Co. intrigued me most because of its association.  It “shares” the name with Sylvia Beach’s famous Parisian Bookstore, which was made famous primarily by modernists: Hemingway, Joyce, Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and the like. The second store, copied after the first, also became an institution and still stands. I remember visiting it with Mrs. Helmick, the high school English teacher who was an incredible influence on my life and academic path. I was a freshman at Ole Miss but still accompanied the old high school Explorer’s Club on their annual European trip.  At that point, I had no knowledge of the famous bookstore, and I was still such a literary novice that I perceived literature only in terms of books, not their authors, not the places where they worked or received inspiration, not the political or cultural climate that shapes the characters within timeless works.

The group was still exploring nearby Notre Dame and the tourist-centric shops nearby.  Mrs. Helmick pulled me aside and just said, “Let’s go to the bookstore.”  I had no idea that this particular store carried such great historical importance.  Stepping in, it was cluttered, dim, dusty, and a bit disheveled.* Cats roamed freely, and sparse pallets occupied corners, for it is still a place where vagrant writers can crash for the night.  It had none of the grandeur of such a significant institution, and that actually added to its grandeur.  The store didn’t cater to the consumer, to the expectation for good lighting or good hygiene, even, and it didn’t need to.

The Shakespeare & Co. in New York was nothing like this.** The location I visited on the Upper East Side served the Hunter College scene. It was clean, true, but in a very sterile way.  The employees offered no help and gave the impression that they were talking about me, the lone customer.  Not appreciated, kids.  Downstairs, there was a discounted section, but it was random and haphazard, certainly not welcome for browsing.  Perhaps I was in a sour mood, but I was less than impressed. For all that its tagline is supposedly “New York’s Independent Alternative,” it just felt like a smaller Barnes and Noble to me.

*My memory may have tainted the actual experience, as it is wont to do, but even if the details are less than accurate, this is the kind of impression and atmosphere that stays with me, so I deem it an appropriate description.
**From what I can tell, Shakespeare & Co. (NYC) makes no claims to Shakespeare and Company (Paris), but you really can't be a bookstore and pretend the association doesn't exist.  Come on.

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