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Busking for a bed at Shakespeare and Company

A dreamer's utopia in Paris.

Cursed to fulfil every boho (or, in this case, bobo) cliché, I travelled to Paris in my capacity as an obscure folk musician to entertain some of the city’s English-speaking community at Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop in the fifth arrondissement that once counted writers such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg among its clientele.

Though not quite singing for my supper, I was busking for a bed in the third-floor apartment formerly occupied by the shop’s American-born founder, George Whitman, who passed away in 2011. Above the door to his bedroom, I saw what looked like an old cutting from a newspaper, a headline in block capitals that read: “MUSEUM OF THE LOST GENERATION”.

Though the shop has the air of a museum about it, it is anything but deathly. Here is the past come to life, or at least its most romantic literary ideals. Since the 1950s, the bookshop has offered food and shelter to 40,000 aspiring young authors – nicknamed “tumbleweeds” – asking of them in return only a couple of hours’ work and a short autobiography. (Whitman also demanded that they read a book a day, though this tradition seems mercifully to have been abandoned.) Some, including Alan Sillitoe and Jeet Thayil, stayed a matter of days; others haunted the labyrinthine corridors for months, even years, bunking up among the shelves.

Not long before Whitman’s death, the management of Shakespeare and Company passed to his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, whose name gestures towards the shop’s history. In 1919, the American expat Sylvia Beach established the first Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the rue Dupuytren; after moving to larger premises on rue de l’Odéon in 1921, it became a base for “lost-generation” writers such as Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald. Beach then published the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses and stocked controversial titles such as D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. After an altercation with a Nazi officer during the French Occupation, she closed the shop. In the 1960s, Whitman’s nearby booksellers, le Mistral, adopted the name of Beach’s shop and, with it, her mission to enrich the cultural life of Paris.

Though I never met George, I sensed his continued presence in the rambunctious spirit that pervades his (and now his daughter’s) shop. In the 2003 documentary Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man, he is shown barking orders at staff and tumbleweeds, his aura of authority matched by a distinctly American variety of grace – no-nonsense elevated into a philosophical creed. Yet at other times he is clearly the man who once described this place as a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. In the cockroach-infested kitchen, he prepares pancakes and spaghetti for those staying at the shop; the true sustenance he offers, however, is that of the imagination.

“Instead of being a bona fide bookseller, I am more like a frustrated novelist,” Whitman wrote in 2004. “This store has rooms like chapters in a novel.” After my performance, I felt privileged to have been a minor part of this story. Sylvia tells me that she wants to expand the bookshop’s operations; she has been running a literary festival and there are plans to establish a writers’ retreat in the French countryside. “We’ll sell the eggs from the hens at the shop,” she says. Though George Whitman’s lost generation may have faded from view, his utopia for dreamers lives on.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here. Follow him on Twitter at @YoZushi81

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on