Shakespeare and Company: the center of the literary expatriate movement in Paris. Hemingway borrowed books from the shelves and Joyce published Ulysseshere. Still holding English-speaking readings on Monday nights and shelving crammed with English books, it still seems to attract all those holding onto The Lost Generation with wine-stained skin of their teeth, like myself. My first in the shop, I thought it smelled a lot like 1920. My 2011 self went home and googled it. The website said they take volunteers so I got on that pretty quickly. I thought I’d surround myself with people like me, people who would rather gush about books and sit staring at the Seine than do anything else in Paris.
A couple weeks of emails are exchanged and I’m set to start on a Saturday for four hours. I thought I’d get to organize books and talk to people and do things in back rooms where I could imagine Joyce sitting while Ulysses was being printed. Him sitting in his round glasses, double breasted blazer, looking out the window and watching the printing press. This was supposed to be what was going to connect me to the Paris I dreamed about. This would connect me to the contemporary Hemingway and I’d move to Paris forever and have everyone in the 6th over to look at the art in my living room on Saturday nights and I’d spend summers watching bullfights in Spain.
I arrived at 10:50, being as that I was supposed to start at 11:00, when the store opens. The front door was open and a three people stood at the front cash register, seemingly in a serious discussion. They were all dressed in earth tones. The girl was very plain, no makeup, straight brown hair to her shoulders. One guy was dressed like it was 1935. The other wore glasses that screamed I’m intellectual and a sweater that screamed I don’t bathe often.
“Hi. I’m here to-“
“We’re actually not open yet,” she told me before my sentence was completed. I must have look confused so she continued, “nous sommes ferme.” Her eyes seemed very cynical, very judgy, and her upper lip was held in a way that seemed to say “even if we were open, you should leave.”
“Oh no. I’m actually here to volunteer. I talked to Terry. He told me to start today at 11:00.” Three pairs of eyes stared at me with such indifference toward my presence. I strongly felt the urge to turn around leave, but I thought for The Lost Generation, I’d need to put up with it for a little while.
After about 45 minutes of showing me how disorganized the store is, the girl told me to start reorganizing the biography section. Unlike the others, this is organized by the last name of the subject of the book. It is also in a back corner, covered in dust. While shelving, I learned books are dirty and start to turn your hands black. I learned that people will ask you questions in every language. I learned you’re expected to be able to answer them, despite my salary of zero dollars per hour.
Another volunteer starts shelving next to me. He seems nice and normal. He says this is his second time volunteering here. He’s American, just graduated from college in California and is now on his way to a job in northern France, stopping back in Paris on his way up. I think it’s awesome to know people who do things like that. I think about how I could never do anything like that.
I go to the “apartment” which is actually a weird room on the second floor of the building next door where there is a bathroom and a room with a cot in it. A guy is getting changed. I have a big block of wood attached to a key labeled TUMBLEWEED KEY. I am not in fact tumbleweed, but I learn about them.
[The bookstore runs a program where young writers can stay for free on a bed in the apartment if they work in the shop and write everyday. You can’t reserve it in advance. You just show up, with your things, and see if they have room for you. I like it because it seems to really stay within the spirit of the place, keeping writers afloat when they don’t have money. Then you realize that that isn’t the world we live in anymore and people who hold onto other things aren’t always the most socially accepting.]
I leave the room and return downstairs very confused. I go back to work organizing books that seem to never seem to actually get organized.
Then, my first encounter with a tumbleweeder: I’m re-shelving Philip K. Dick novels and I’m sweating a lot because there is no air conditioning and I woke up too late and too hung-over to accurately access the weather and wore a long sleeve shirt with jeans when it was 75 degrees outside. He is wearing pants like it’s the 40s and speaks with an accent that could be British or Swedish or French or anything but what it actually is which is from South Dakota. He says something that I can’t hear.
“Sorry, what?” I wipe my face with dirty hands and feel kind of dizzy from the heat.
He rolls his eyes and responds, “It’s Yeats,” and walks away.
Three weeks later, I showed up to work and felt sick. I asked if I could leave early and then said they’d have to check, except that I’m working for no money. I was then told I put stickers on crooked. I never showed up again.