Over the past decade I’ve watched the iconic cultural places in our city disappear one by one. Places like Maxwell Street and Halsted, the birthplace of Chicago jazz and blues and a hangout for writers like Nelson Algren, destroyed and rebuilt with a glossy soulless exterior.
I just assumed it was the same story everywhere. That’s when I found out Shakespeare & Company Bookshop was still open for business. I’d first heard about the shop when I began reading Earnest Hemingway’s work. When I got into Kerouac, there it was again. Many of the Beats hung out there and slept amongst the bookshelves.
These were the two generations more than any other in American literature that made me want to be a writer, so I decided to drop in during my trip to Paris this past summer.
Shakespeare & Company sits in a small stone courtyard just across the Seine from the Notre Dame Cathedral.
A sign scribbled in chalk near the entrance reads, "Some People call me the Don Quixote of the French Quarter because my head is so far up in the clouds that I can imagine all of us Angels in Paradise."
It finishes with the line, “I have been doing this for fifty years, now it is my daughter’s turn.”
The message is dated January 2004. That’s when George Whitman handed over his beloved bookshop to his then-24-year-old daughter Sylvia. His daughter is named after the shop’s original owner, an American expatriate named Sylvia Beach who first opened Shakespeare & Company’s doors in the early 20th century.
Upon entering the bookshop, I didn’t have to look far to find Sylvia Whitman, perched at her desk just inside the shop’s left-side entrance where the antique books are sold. Sylvia is a fair-skinned, bright-eyed, 29-year-old businesswoman. She grew up in the apartment above the shop, where authors like Lawrence Durrrell regularly visited.
“Running around without shoes on, hiding in corners and being read stories upon stories upon stories. It was a fairy tale childhood,” Whitman said.
While many independent bookstores have closed their doors because of declining sales, Sylvia has maintained Shakespeare & Company’s loyal customer base and its legacy.
“I’ve tried to keep the atmosphere and the philosophy that Dad created, so we still have writers sleeping in the bookshop,” she said.
Those writers, nicknamed “Tumbleweeds,” function as Shakespeare & Company writers-in-residence. Typically, they’re young, aspiring authors from the United States or the U.K. permitted to write and sleep amongst the dusty shelves by night in exchange for some daytime labor. I use “labor” in the relative sense.
I encountered a Tumbleweed, a young man with long, curly dark hair tapping on a piano upstairs in the lending library. Two others sitting at his sides listened with rapt attention.
While Tumbleweeds heighten the shop’s Bohemian ambience, what really struck me were the books. Walking the narrow halls you can’t escape the scent of the maple glue bindings emanating from the walls of bookshelves stacked from floor to ceiling with early-edition books. Seeing these artifacts gave me chills, knowing they’d been thumbed through by some of the greatest authors of the 20th century.
I passed a small hovel built into the wall with a chair and an old-fashioned typewriter sitting atop a desk, inviting anyone inspired to clack out a poem or a few lines of prose. Browsing the shelves, I came across a dusty, early-edition copy of “Studs Lonigan” by Chicago author James T. Ferrell, a book that inspired me to write about Edgewater, my old neighborhood.
That day, I found another Windy City connection, University of Chicago graduate Lauren Goldberg. After a stint as a volunteer at Shakespeare & Company, she now holds a coveted part-time position.
“I help Sylvia a lot with the random errands,” said Goldberg. “There are bookshop things, then there’s like every other possible random errand.”
Lauren put in some time at Barbara’s Bookstore in Hyde Park but says her experience here is unique.
“Every once in a while we really have an author that really just connects with everyone in the shop, and you kind of feel this different electricity in the air," she said. "Everyone is really happy.”
I first felt that breed of literary electricity many years ago near Diversey and Halsted at the Burkhart Underground in the smoky, low-lit basement of Burkhart Studios. It was the home of Fred Burkhart, a Beat photographer, painter, poet and writer, who opened his studios to Chicago musicians, writers and artists. For decades, Burkhart created a space for artistic expression. His Underground helped me become the writer and storyteller I am today.
Unfortunately, places like that are harder and harder to come by, not just in Chicago, but in many parts of the world. Even Shakespeare & Company has had to make some concessions to modernity. Sylvia Whitman’s father George held a firm position against technology. For years, he didn’t even have a phone. When Sylvia took over, she made some changes.
“I brought in a computer system and kind of generally modernized the bookshop," she said. "I felt like we didn’t really have a choice. We really needed to deal with the competition.”
Customers eventually adjusted, but like the rest of the publishing industry, Shakespeare & Company still faces an uncertain future. Last winter, sales were slow. In order to survive in a bad economy and changing media landscape, Sylvia is planning to broaden the scope of the shop to encompass other art forms.
“There’s a lot of artistic energy, and we just want to open up to that even more,” Whitman said. “We want to have events, exhibitions, maybe a little cinema down in the cellar. We have lots of crazy, exciting ideas."
The typewriter in the second floor hovel is still clacking. The piano in the side room is still moaning its melody. And a woman named Sylvia is opening the doors of the shop each morning to bustling crowds of book lovers and closing them in the evening to keep young writers warm against the chill wafting up off the Seine in the Parisian night. These Tumbleweeds, snuggled in amongst the same bookshelves as Hemingway and Stein, Burroughs and Miller, dreaming new dreams for the future.
Leaving the shop, I found myself heartened to know the Shakespeare & Company bookshop continues to be a beacon for the literary spirit.
I wish I could say the same for Chicago’s Burkhart Studios, the creative space that was so important to my growth as a writer. Owner Fred Burkhart has fallen sick with cancer. The building is being sold. The studio’s absence is more than a personal loss; it’s a blow to our city’s literary and cultural heritage, another missing piece of the soul of our city.
Bill Hillmann is a Chicago writer and storyteller. He’ll be returning to Shakespeare & Company this summer as a Tumbleweed, writer-in-residence.