“I’m going to open a literary café. Everything will be cooked under my supervision. There’s only one way to make a good lemon pie, you know. What I should do is go lock myself in a room and invent something like the safety pin. I’ve got to raise enough money to buy the store behind this one. Then we can knock out a wall, and the store will reach right back into the garden of St-Julien-Le-Pauvre. Did you know that the oldest tree in Paris is growing there? Go and take a look. We’ll have a big opening party. Everyone is invited.”
— George Whitman, 1969
While Shakespeare and Company’s founder George Whitman wasn’t present on the opening day of the iconic Parisian bookstore’s new cafe, his words were. Fitting for a place that has, for decades, been a haven of the literary world, a place of inspiration and respite for budding authors and bestsellers alike.
Standing on Rue de la Bûcherie and looking at the bookstore to the right and the cafe to the left, it seems like things were always this way, completely natural to sit and drink a coffee while penning a masterpiece, inspired by the millions of words printed on the millions of pages housed inside.
“Lots of people already came into the bookstore and asked, ‘where’s your cafe?’” says Sylvia Whitman, who inherited the bookstore from her father, and has now finally been able to expand it the way her father wished.
When it comes to books and coffee, “the two kind of go together,” says Whitman, chatting with me on the cafe’s anticipated opening day. News in Paris spreads fast, and throughout the summer there were murmurs of the new cafe. Shakespeare and Company plays an important role in Paris, particularly for any English speaker with an inkling for writing, and the fact that the beloved bookstore would add a cafe to the offerings was exciting. This opening day, the space is packed, both with regulars exclaiming their congratulations to Whitman, and tourists, who have probably come for a caffeine jolt after spending hours in the bookstore next door, not even knowing that they are witnessing a grand occasion. The cafe fits in so seamlessly with the bookstore’s vibe that one could easily believe that it has always been there.
But it almost didn’t happen. In fact, the space was destined for a gelato chain, but Whitman was persistent in fulfilling her father’s wishes. “This was his dream,” she says of her father, and as a business owner who has worked hard to be true to his spirit, when the space was available, she wasn’t going to let it fall into the hands of anyone else. In the end, it was the spirit of George Whitman that won over the owner of the building, giving Shakespeare and Company the reins to turn the space into a cafe. “The owner succumbed,” says Whitman, pointing out that the owner even said to her, “I remember your dad coming over every week, saying, ‘I want to open a literary cafe.’”
Given Paris’ current obsession with coffee shops, despite the fact that George Whitman wanted a literary cafe many decades ago, the timing of the opening seems particularly serendipitous. A cafe at Shakespeare and Company was perhaps inevitable, only a matter of time. But to have arrived in a moment where specialty coffee is flourishing has allowed the bookstore to add a different element to its space.
“I wonder if we opened this 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have known what coffee was,” says Whitman, pointing to the care and effort behind it. This is after all not a mere chain coffee brand setting up shop in the welcoming space of a bookstore. For the beans, Shakespeare and Company has chosen to work with Parisian roaster Café Lomi. “They’re so serious about what they do,” says Whitman, “it lifts it to the next level.”
But it’s not just the coffee that’s carefully considered. “I want everything to be coming from a good source,” says Whitman. For that they chose to partner with Bob’s Food Etc, an outfit run by American Marc Grossman that has made a name for itself in the last few years with cold-pressed juices and healthy, American-inspired fare. Shakespeare and Company has worked with Bob’s previously for its literary festival, and to have them supply the cafe was a natural progression. “They just kind of moved in,” says Whitman.
“I always feel like the staff at Shakespeare and Company could just as easily be working at Bob’s and vice versa,” says Bob’s founder Grossman. “Shakespeare and Company is also a huge reference for me as a Paris institution started by an American expat and it’s cool to be able to tap into all of that history,” adds Grossman—himself born and raised in Manhattan.
Literary puns dot the menu, like the Flapjack Kerouac and Love and Squalor Pie, and the cafe has its own version of the legendary Proust Questionnaire, printed on a piece of paper lining every tray, so that your cup of coffee comes with a side of literary soul-searching.
The naming of items is an ongoing brainstorm between the team at Shakespeare and Company and Grossman. “Sometimes I worry about it becoming too cutesy—like Ben and Jerry’s or something—but it is hard to resist,” says Grossman. “Some of the ones we have been tossing around are: Shakespeare Shake (for smoothie of the day); Hot puns served daily; Naked Lunch for our health food formula; Catcher-in-the-rye bread (Peter the barista thought of that one); the lunchpack of Notre Dame.”
Beyond tongue-in-cheek puns, however, there’s no denying that this cafe has high standards to live up to: the standards of George Whitman. I asked Grossman what George Whitman would have thought of his food if he had been around today. “I think he would appreciate my obsessive attention to detail and I would like to think he would grant me poetic license with the actual recipes,” says Grossman. “His spirit is there. My goal is to make things that fit and I think you can feel when it does.”
And as for the lemon pie, the pie that George Whitman insisted there was only one way to make? “The other day a customer told me he grew up on a farm and the lemon pie was just like his mom’s, which I took as some sort of validation,” says Grossman. “Of course, he wasn’t George. That validation will have to wait.”
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Paris, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break, available now from Ten Speed Press. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.