November 18, 2015

Hiding out in a bookstore in a city under attack


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Image courtesy of Shakespeare and Company.

That bookstores and libraries can act as havens—for the lonely, the disenchanted, the revolutionary—is a familiar notion.

Last Friday, Shakespeare and Companythe one on the banks of the Seine in Paris’s 5th arrondissement, not the one in Manhattan—was called into service as a sanctuary of an all-too-literal sort. As bomb-blasts and gun-fire rocked the City of Light, twenty or so customers bunkered in the stacks as booksellers blacked out the windows and carried out the Biblical dictum long-inscribed on the bookstore’s wall: “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”

Rose Alana Frith, a bookseller at the Parisian institution, explained to Buzzfeed’s Jarry Lee:

Shakespeare and Company Bookshop has always acted as a place of safety for many, as a warm retreat from reality, and, last night, as a refuge from atrocities. It is a continual home for those who, throughout its history, have slept between its shelves (as Tumbleweeds) and forever return, for those who sat and read a few lines one gray afternoon in 1965 and remain connected to those moments, this place. It is an immense tapestry of things: proposals of marriage in the upstairs piano room and a particular kind of vulnerability which only comes with travel seem to pattern it. Last night we simply continued a tradition ….

A bit overwrought, perhaps, and most likely not exactly the sort of thing on the mind of people sheltering from gunfire. Nonetheless it was the culture of Paris—the concert halls, the restaurants, the sports arenas—that was under attack last Friday the 13th, and it would not have been a far cry for bookstores to have been on the list of targets. And the blistering irony of hiding from such mindless mayhem in a bookstore is something more telling and potent in itself than the strain for lyricism.

And in the wake of that mayhem, the store’s suggestion to “be not inhospitable to strangers” is an articulation of the exact challenge now confronting a Europe overrun by refugees, a challenge now ratcheted up to an unthinkable level of tension. One can only hope that there will still be some room for guidance by angels after this—for the kind of benevolent shelter for the deserving long on display at Shakespeare and Company.



Simon Reichley is assistant to the publishers and office manager at Melville House.