A Guide to the English Language Bookshops of Paris
Paris has a long history of artistic and literary innovation. It has produced some of the finest writing in the world, from Voltaire to Duras, via Balzac, Hugo and Sartre. It has provided inspiration and a spiritual home for Anglophone writers such as Hemingway, Joyce, Stein and Fitzgerald. Parisians take world literature very seriously, and English language bookshops have always been central to literary life in the City of Lights. So for Anglophone bibliophiles battling their way through Proust in an attempt at cultural immersion, and desperate for a taste of home, there are plenty of options.
The most famous of the lot is, of course, the legendary Shakespeare and Company (37, rue de la Bûcherie). The original shop was founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and became a gathering place for Anglophone writers of the 1920s and 30s like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Stein and Eliot. The present incarnation opened in 1951 on a picturesque little side street just across the river from Notre Dame. Founder George Whitman attempted to recreate the ethos of the original shop, turning it into a Left Bank literary institution and welcoming authors and intellectuals from around the world. Aspiring writers, known as ‘Tumbleweeds,’ still come to stay at the shop, sleeping on beds that turn into benches for customers during the day. The shop hosts free weekly readings from both emerging and widely acclaimed authors like Jeanette Winterson, Carol Ann Duffy, Zadie Smith and Naomi Klein. Make sure to check out the antiquarian bookshop in the next building and the cosy reading room upstairs.
Today, Shakespeare and Company is admittedly a bit of a tourist trap – the books are rather overpriced and the café, although it does do great coffee, doesn’t really offer value for money. However, if you’re looking for a fantastic view of Notre Dame to gaze at while you sip a chai latte and peruse a Beat classic, you’ve come to the right place.
Just around the corner on rue de la Parcheminerie, The Abbey Bookshop is less well known, but certainly worth a visit. A rabbit warren of new and second-hand books just off the main tourist thoroughfares of the Left Bank, it is much quieter and consequently much more pleasant than Shakespeare and Company. It’s the kind of place you could get lost in for hours, tucked away in a corner flicking through books to a soundtrack of soft jazz, especially if the friendly shop owner has just offered you a cup of coffee. The space is extremely cramped, but that’s part of what makes The Abbey Bookshop so charming; books are piled absolutely everywhere – don’t take your enormous unwieldy book-bag in with you! Boxes of cheap paperbacks stacked out front give the impression of a shop spilling over with literary goodies. Handy guides to ‘100 Must-Read Sci-Fi/Historical/etc. Novels’ are placed in the appropriate sections and cute hand-written signs make the confined space easily navigable. It’s the kind of place where you can find anything from the latest bestsellers to beautifully bound vintage poetry anthologies, volumes of ‘An Illustrated History of English Plate,’ to ‘Poise, and How To Attain It,’ children’s books to film theory to current affairs. A really lovely place to spend an afternoon.
Staying on the literary Left Bank, prime Parisian bookshop territory, are two more ex-pat run shops; San Francisco Books (17, rue Monsieur le Prince) and Berkeley Books (8, rue Casimir Delavigne). Situated on quiet streets in 6th arrondissement, they are the perfect spots to pick up everything from cheap paperbacks to heavy tomes of biography, psychology, economics, poetry and more. San Francisco Books has a classic second-hand bookshop atmosphere; tall shelves with narrow aisles, stacks of paperbacks everywhere and boxes of discounted books out front. Berkeley Books is more spacious, full of classics and some more quirky titles, art history, criticism, literary journals and more.
Moving across the river to the oldest English language bookshop on the continent, Galignani (224, rue de Rivoli) is certainly the poshest entry on this list. It was founded in 1801 on the Right Bank, and moved to its current location overlooking the Tuileries Gardens in 1856. Make your way past the intellectually imposing shelves of French language books on art, politics and philosophy to find the English language fiction towards the back. Inviting leather armchairs and quaint sliding ladders give this section a more homely feel. The overall elegance of the shop does translate to the prices – don’t expect books here to come cheap.
And finally, just a few doors down from Galignani, you’ll find the Paris branch of W.H. Smith (248, rue de Rivoli). Slightly classier than most U.K. branches, this is a good place to come for a wide range of English language titles, and also for Marmite, shortbread, Yorkshire tea and any other British delicacies you might find yourself craving. True bibliophiles will, however, find something lacking here; the convenience of alphabetised shelving will never be enough to match the charm of the haphazard second-hand Left Bank shops.