Literary Paris: Bookshops, Cafes and Cemeteries

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Before I traveled to Paris, I wondered what it was about the city of lights that so intrigued authors and stimulated so much writing for hundreds of years.  But after visiting, the mystery eluded me no longer. Paris is romantic. And I don’t mean it’s a great place to inspire love affairs and spark old flames, though it is. I mean romantic in the most prevailing way—mystical, exciting, exotic, fantastical. One can lose themselves in the narrow cobble-stoned side streets, the medieval architecture, the multitude of cafes and museums, the sparkling Eiffel Tower and the lights reflected on the flowing Seine. In Paris, there is endless inspiration.

This summer, for our 10th anniversary, my husband and I decided to take our first trip alone in eight years to Paris, the dreamiest place we could think of. Since we are both writers, I wanted to try to experience Paris the way ex-pat writers did back in the day. Of course, there were also a million other things we wanted to do. I realized that the best plan was to spend the morning writing in cafes and give our afternoons over to tourism.

Sidewalk Cafes

It ends up that Paris is the perfect place for writing in cafes. First of all, there are lots of cafes. Most of them have patio seating right on the sidewalk. Parisians must be shameless voyeurs because all of the chairs on the sidewalk tables faced out toward the street. They weren’t even trying to pretend like people were drinking coffee for each other’s company. Obviously, people-watching was encouraged. Writers love to people watch, don’t they? All the stories you can concoct about people based on a simple gesture. Even better, once your food or drink is served, Parisian waiters ignore you completely. There is absolutely no pressure to leave. In fact, you have to hunt them down for your check. They are always surprised when you want to leave in less than an hour’s time. Lingering with pen and paper without having to order three more lattes to justify the space you are taking up is welcomed.

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At first, I wanted to visit all the historically famous writerly cafes, such as Les Duex Magots and Les Flores, but within moments, I realized that what were probably unpolished dives in Hemingway and Pound’s day, were now tourist attractions. I guess I wasn’t the only tourist trying to glean just a small sparkle of Paris’s literary history. You don’t need to find a café with history to feel literary in Paris, but we did find a literary café that we fell in love with, Les Editeurs Café in the neighborhood of Saint Germain des Pres.

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Les Editeurs is a café that doubles as a bookstore so aside from the comfortable seating (essential for a good writing café!) of red leather chairs and benches, the décor consisted simply of walls of book shelves. The service was prompt and friendly. The food and coffee were great. Although there was the usual sidewalk seating, we opted to be inside as the threat of rain was imminent. We were seated upstairs by a second-story window with great views for people watching and catching the occasional beam of light. I could easily peruse the books over my shoulder and purchase anything that looked enticing, though all the books I saw were in French. When I whipped out my paper and pad, I was promptly ignored by wait staff, just the way I prefer it.

Bookstores

If you would rather read your books in English, you’ll probably want to visit the handful of English bookstores in Paris. The most famous one is Shakespeare and Co., which was originally owned by Sylvia Beach, a friend of Hemingway’s who made an appearance in his quintessential Paris book, A Moveable Feast. If you haven’t read it already, you must read A Moveable Feast while travelling in Paris, which recounts Hemingway’s days in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and all the wonderful literary ex-pats from the Jazz Age that he encounters including Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you haven’t already purchased a copy, you can find it at Shakespeare & Co. In fact, just as you walk in the door to your left is an entire bookshelf entitled “Lost Generation.”

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Hemingway did not like this label, which was supposedly given by Gertrude Stein.  He says in Moveable Feast, “I thought who is calling who a lost generation?… I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be…”

Shakespeare and Co. consisted of narrow passageways through towering bookshelves and had several sweet reading nooks, even a tiny nook with a typewriter that seemed more suitable for Toulouse-Lauretec than an average-sized person. However, while I was there, it was packed with tourists and tour groups and yet there was no line when I purchased a book of poetry and got a souvenir stamp on the inside cover. While it was a bit of a tourist trap, in the hour I spent reading poetry and drinking café au lait at their little coffee shop, I watched the end of a seven-hour reading marathon of Ulysses out front and the start of another poetry reading upstairs.

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If you are more interested in books than tourist sites, I recommend visiting English bookstores Berkeley Books or San Francisco Books, both in Saint Germain.

Gravesites

The depth of history in Paris inspired us to visit the resting place of dead authors. On a rainy day, we visited the Pantheon where we paid tribute to the crypts of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zora, Alexandre Dumas and others. But, our preferred locale for honoring the literary afterlife was the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Ménilmontant, the 20e Arrondissement. Bring a blanket, baguettes and brie for a picnic beside your favorite author’s grave. Most people visit the cemetery to see the famous poet, Jim Morrison, but our favorite literary graveside was Héloise and Abélard, which was also the oldest tomb there.

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Héloise’s and Abélard’s forbidden love was immortalized in their letters to each other, such as this one:

 “If I die here I will give orders that my body be carried to the House of the Paraclete. You shall see me in that condition, to demand tears from you, for it will be too late; weep rather for me now and extinguish the fire which burns me. You shall see me in order that your piety may be strengthened by horror of this carcase, and my death be eloquent to tell you what you brave when you love a man. I hope you will be willing, when you have finished this mortal life, to be buried near me. Your cold ashes need then fear nothing, and my tomb shall be the more rich and renowned.”

Héloise’s and Abélard’s remains were transferred to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in 1817 and placed in the same tomb. I can’t think of anywhere more perfect for these two and their fantastic tale of romance than Paris.

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