This week marks the 100th birthday of Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris. Shakespeare & Co. is an amazing place, both for its beautiful interiors with floor to ceiling wooden bookshelves and for its long history as a meeting place for Modernist writers. It was also the scene of one of the most magical literary evenings of my life, when I talked my way into giving a reading, though I’m sure it is a long-forgotten blip in the history of this legendary store.
The date was September 19, 1988, and I was a young poet, just two years out of college. I had quit my job in Chicago and taken the summer off to travel through Europe, first visiting my brother in Poland just before the fall of Communism (which we had no idea would happen within the year), then visiting friends in Denmark and Belgium, arriving in time for the marriage of Frank Van de Steen and Sabine Daeninck. It was an earlier and safer (or more naive) time, so much of my travel was by hitch-hiking, and I stayed in hostels when I wasn’t visiting friends.
According to an old journal I found, I had been in Paris for three days. I had already walked all over the city, seen the Louvre and the Rodin museum, and been to Notre Dame. I’d also been to Shakespeare & Co., though the first time I went, the shop was closed because it was Saturday. I lent 100 francs to an Austrian couple I met whose car had been broken into, though I didn’t really believe their story and I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t show up at our meeting place to return the money. But that might have been part of the reason I ended up back at Shakespeare & Co.
Earlier in the day, I had been brash enough to try to arrange a reading there with a rightfully dubeous George Whitman and had talked him into at least considering me for a date in October. But when I went back later in the afternoon after waiting around Notre Dame plaza for my Austrian ‘friends,’ I overheard that the American poet whose reading I had planned to attend had to cancel. Being young and unabashed, I volunteered to step in. I had published a few poems in magazines, performed in Chicago, and even had a poem on the radio. I probably made it all sound a lot more impressive than it was, and they agreed to let me read. After all, people were about to arrive, so why not?
With that decided, I went down to the Seine to find a quiet place to practice my poems and get prepared. The reading was after hours, upstairs above the bookstore. As I recall maybe a dozen people stayed for the reading. I’m sure some went home disappointed that the poet they expected hadn’t shown up. But according to my journal, the reading went very well. Those who stuck around had a good time, there was a lot of energy in the room, and we had a great discussion afterwards when several of us went out for drinks. Of course, I didn’t get paid (other than a glass or two of wine) and didn’t have any books to sell. It wasn’t my first public reading, but it was my first and so far only international one, and it was in Paris in one of the most famous bookstores in the world.