It's Possible to Find Comfort After Something Terrible Happens

We learned the answer to this in Paris.

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There was almost no one on our flight to Paris. Three days earlier, on November 13, more than 130 people had been killed there by terrorists with ISIS connections. The victims had been eating dinner at cafés and watching an American band play a concert. One had just been walking on the street. In the global panic that followed, Air France offered to defer wary customers' tickets by a couple of weeks. But there was no question for us—my husband and I got married on November 14, and we were going to Paris on our honeymoon.

The stairs at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris lift visitors up both literally and figuratively.
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We arrived in the afternoon, and took a walk through the Marais where we'd booked an Airbnb. We found ourselves at Place de la République, where a crowd of hundreds was constructing a massive makeshift memorial of flowers and family photographs. The city was still reeling, but trying to find its footing.

The front of Shakespeare and Co. as it looked in the aughts. Today, the shop also runs a café on the other side of its antiquarian books store.
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When I wrote to our Airbnb host before we left to make sure that the situation in Paris hadn't changed the circumstances of our reservation, she wrote back, "Parisians seem to be putting on a united front, and all cafés and restaurants have reopened. The atmosphere is rather calm. It's reassuring to see Parisians returning to normality and staying strong. People seem determined not to change their way of life."

My husband, Michael, in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral on our first night in Paris—his first night out of the country ever!

The first night of our honeymoon, as it rained, we crossed the Seine via Ile de la Cité, where Notre-Dame stands huge and luminous, passed a few men in armor holding automatic weapons, and ended up in front of Shakespeare and Co. If bookstores, old bookstores in particular—the ones that smell of paper dust and old cedar closets, with floorboards that bend underfoot—possess a peculiar magic (and they do), then Shakespeare and Co. is that alternate magical world readers always hope they'll stumble into through the back of a wardrobe. A visit to Shakespeare and Co. is the most transportive pilgrimage a bibliophile can make.

We made our way to Shakespeare and Co. in the rain, sans umbrellas.
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Part of the charm of Shakespeare and Co. is that it forces people together. The store demands a literal human connection between strangers.

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The shop buzzes with a frenetic energy that hit me like a physical blow when I stepped through the door that night. It seems Shakespeare & Co. has no true walls, just thousands of books threatening to topple floor-to-ceiling shelves, books perched over doorways, books stacked on the floor, books slotted through the stair railing. The spaces between rooms are so narrow, it's almost impossible for two people to pass each other. Some visitor is always playing the piano upstairs, and every small corner is occupied by readers.

George Whitman, who ran the second version of Shakespeare and Co. before handing it off to his daughter, with customers in the 1970s. Photo by Robert Fields Jeantet
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Part of the charm of Shakespeare and Co. is that it forces people together. Because of its cramped rooms, visitors are always brushing shoulders, reaching under and over each other's arms to grab a book. The store demands a literal human connection between strangers. The night of the Paris attacks, when my soon-to-be husband and I were still stateside and getting ready for our rehearsal dinner, Shakespeare and Co. sheltered about two dozen people while the city was on lockdown.

No big deal, just Langston Hughes reading poetry while legendary jazz musician and artist Ted Joans plays trumpet.

A staffer wrote to Buzzfeed the next day, "Those hours will be ones many will be unable to forget—colored by a series of devastating news reports, lack of sleep, and hours of blue siren-filled light. People have spoken of these events as a potential dividing line between what was before and what will come; surrounded by a medley of familiar and previously unknown faces in the darkened stairwell, as events unfolded, I felt comforted. Kindness endures."

In the children's section, visitors leave little notes on what has become known as the Mirror of Love, inside a reading nook. Photo by David Grove
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Shakespeare and Co. has been an oasis of sorts since its first iteration opened in 1919. The proprietor, Sylvia Beach, drew to her shop some of the most important literary figures of the early part of the 20th century: James Joyce (she was the first to publish Ulysses, in 1922), Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes.

Travelers can apply to live in the bookstore as writers-in-residence, or Tumbleweeds.

The second version of the bookshop opened in its current location in the 1950s, and has since become a haven for literary travelers from all over the world. Writers can apply to live at the bookstore for weeks at a time. Called Tumbleweeds, these bohemians sleep on beds among the stacks, work the shop, and write a one-page autobiography that the store keeps on file. Thirty thousand people have lived as Tumbleweeds over the last several decades.

Inclusivity is integral to the history of this lovely bookshop. Photo by Tobias Stäbler

For the remainder of our stay in Paris, we either passed or visited Shakespeare and Co. every day. Painted around the shop are aphorisms, the most famously photographed of which reads, "Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise." Elsewhere in the city, more memorials were being built, soldiers were keeping an eye on cobblestone streets, and President Hollande was asking the French government to extend the country's state of emergency.

George Whitman and his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, named for the owner of the original shop. Sylvia now runs Shakespeare and Co. Photo by Deborah Hayden

In the shop, everyone knew those things were happening, but everyone also knew that there were aging back issues of The Paris Review to leaf through, that there were up-and-coming writers to discover on the shelves in front of them. Writers whose work might help us make sense of the world outside Shakespeare and Co.'s walls.

A new book about the most powerful safe haven in Paris, Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart is out now, $35,

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