Shakespeare and Company, Paris

Leila Abboud 

On the eve of France’s second lockdown in late October, Sylvia Whitman, owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, sent an email out to customers with a stark subject line: Hard Times.

The shop opened by her father, George Whitman, in 1951 had suffered a sales contraction of roughly 75 per cent this year as Covid-19 killed tourism. So, she wrote, she would be “especially grateful” if people who could afford it would buy a book on their website.

“I hate asking for help, especially since we’ve always been in a position of generosity here,” says Whitman later in an interview.

Located on the Left Bank of the Seine just across from Notre-Dame cathedral, the English-language bookstore is famous not only for hosting readings by authors from Allen Ginsberg to Dave Eggers, but also for allowing young writers to crash there in exchange for a few hours’ work. Called “tumbleweed” by Whitman’s father, the group has grown to be an extended community. 

Despite her misgivings, the email drew an overwhelming response: some 5,000 orders came in the first week alone, up from an average of around 100 a week. “It made me realise that people have their own relationship with the place and their own memories. It’s bigger than just us. Readers want to keep this alive.”

Outside Shakespeare and Company . . . © Getty Images
. . . and inside the Paris-based, English-language bookstore © Getty Images

The rush of orders crashed the Shakespeare and Company website, and they soon decided to temporarily stop taking new ones lest they not be able to fulfil them all. “We have had to turn ourselves into a mini-warehouse, but we will get them all out for Christmas!” she laughs.

Once France reopened “non-essential” businesses on November 28, customers came streaming back to the warren-like shop. They were lined up 15 deep on Saturday waiting to get inside; government restrictions meant only 10 people were allowed in at a time.

Triumph of small booksellers

Here we shine a light on 11 bookshops around the world that have defied the pandemic — and even flourished.
Tuesday: New tricks — Paris, New Delhi, San Francisco and Mexico City
Wednesday
: Serving a community — from Washington DC to Edinburgh and Novosibirsk
Thursday: The politicals — Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Jaffa and Berlin

Whitman thinks that Shakespeare and Company will have to reinvent itself again to get through 2021, since its core clientele of foreign students from the nearby Sorbonne, foreign residents of Paris, and American tourists are likely to remain thin on the ground. One solution may be the newly created membership programme called Friends of Shakespeare and Company. Paying from €45 to €500 for the year, people can support the store and get access to quarterly newsletters, customised gifts and an online book club.

Whitman said she had been inspired by Sylvia Beach, the founder of the first Shakespeare and Company in Paris, who started a similar club to get through the Great Depression. In exchange for an annual fee, members were invited to readings featuring the likes of TS Eliot, André Gide and Paul Valéry. “Ernest Hemingway put aside his fear of public appearances to do a reading,” she said. “It seemed so fitting to bring this back now.” 

The pandemic has taught her the importance of being flexible in a crisis. While Shakespeare and Company benefited from the French government’s generous furlough scheme, it has proven harder to renegotiate rents owed to the landlord. 

She is mulling deeper changes to the store’s website but has not yet figured out the best strategy for it. Should the site be a small curated selection of books, plus more content like podcasts and lectures, or have a better search function and deep inventory like Amazon? “We’re trying to figure it out,” she says. “But if nothing else, I’ve learned that you really need to be malleable, and be the phoenix that is reborn into something else.”

Bahrisons Booksellers, New Delhi

Amy Kazmin 

Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market, New Delhi © Ishan Tankha

As authorities debated how to ease India’s stringent nationwide coronavirus lockdown back in May, the owner of New Delhi’s Bahrisons Booksellers wrote to top city officials, urging them to permit home delivery of books.

For more than a month, Indians had only been able to buy what the government deemed “essential items” — food, medicine, household cleaners and personal care products. But Anuj Bahri Malhotra, whose refugee father founded Bahrisons in 1953, argued that for people confined to their homes, books too were a requirement.

City officials agreed. In early May, Bahrisons started delivering books to its Delhi customers’ homes, weeks before the national government allowed large ecommerce companies such as Amazon to do so.

“Somebody understood that books were important so people could get busy,” says Bahri Malhotra, noting that books about history — including the second world war — were initially in greatest demand. “I don’t think people ever had so much time on their hands.”

A commitment to providing customers with the written words they want is the founding principle of Bahrisons, a bibliophile magnet located in Khan Market, now India’s most expensive high-street retail location.

Why we returned to reading

Literary editor Frederick Studemann on how bookshops proved resilient through the lockdowns of 2020

The shop was established by Balraj Bahri Malhotra, who arrived, age 19, in New Delhi in 1947 amid the violent partition of the subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

After scraping by selling pens and offering the occasional maths lesson, the young man was offered one of the shops being allocated to refugees in the new Khan Market, and followed a friend's advice to fill his new shop’s shelves with books.

Though not then a keen reader himself, he built his collection by carefully noting customers’ requests, and rushing to obtain the sought-after titles every day at lunchtime from a friendly bookseller elsewhere in the city.

Bahri died in 2016, aged 87. Today his family runs five bookshops around New Delhi, including one exclusively for children’s books. But it is the original Khan Market shop that is a favoured haunt of New Delhi’s political and intellectual elite, with a loyal clientele of politicians, scholars, diplomats, other voracious readers

The store itself is tiny, just about 830 sq feet. Yet it still manages to cram in nearly 100,000 titles — a stimulating mix of academic work, non-academic non-fiction, and literature. Around half the books are linked to south Asia by subject matter or author.

Customers browse the aisles of . . . © Ishan Tankha
. . . Bahrisons Booksellers, New Delhi © Ishan Tankha

Such rich variety is achieved by keeping just a single copy of all but the newest and most sought-after titles, and then rapidly replacing books from a nearby warehouse — usually within hours — after the title is sold. That approach contrasts with rival shops that typically hold five or six copies each of 20,000 or 30,000 books.

“It’s not the space that really matters for a bookshop — it is the variety and how quickly we can service you,” says Anuj Bahri Malhotra.

Shop floor staff stay for years — even decades — developing knowledge of customers’ reading tastes. They are also willing to track down books wherever they may be.

Yet for all the legend around the bookshop, Bahri Malhotra is unsettled by some Indian publishers’ recent decisions to sell new releases exclusively on ecommerce sites — at a discount — for a few weeks before providing copies to brick and mortar stores.

Publishers engaging in such practices, he said, fail to understand “the sanctity” of a bookshop and its role in the community. “There are long-term repercussions of this,” he warns. “If this is going to be how it runs in the next five years, this is going to be the death of the bookstore.

City Lights, San Francisco

Dave Lee

City Lights bookstore in San Francisco © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

The City Lights bookstore, in San Francisco’s once-bohemian North Beach district, has for almost 70 years been a pillar of the city’s cultural identity, with a publishing arm that cemented America’s ideals of free expression.

But the iconic store that brought attention to the Beat Generation of authors and poets saw its lights temporarily extinguished by the first wave of the coronavirus. In March, the owners warned it may not reopen without immediate help. It came. Almost half a million dollars in crowdfunding later — City Lights is back on its feet.

The store is open once again, though now with hand sanitiser at the entrance and a one-way system guiding you around the store and its cavernous basement. The in-store book readings, a fixture here for decades, have moved online — now taking place over Zoom and later uploaded to YouTube.

Do you have a favourite bookshop?

Tell us about your preferred bookshop and why it’s so special to you in the comments below. We may publish a selection of the best on FT.com

More than $300,000 was pledged in the very first day of the store’s appeal. Among the early donors was Daniel Handler, known to millions as “Lemony Snicket”.

“When I was fifteen I wandered in City Lights and found a book that changed my life, and this has continued, every 10 days or so, for the duration of my life,” he told the Financial Times. “It’s a crucial institution in my life and in the worldwide community of literature.”

City Lights was opened in 1953 by college professor Peter Martin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet. The store was the first in the US to exclusively stock paperbacks, a then-defiant idea to put books into the hands of a wider, poorer populace. City Lights was also promoted as a meeting place, keeping opening hours in tune with the schedule of North Beach’s nightlife.

City Lights has been a meeting place since 1953 . . . © Getty Images
. . . and is a bookstore ‘driven by its ideals’ © Getty Images

City Lights’s defining act came in publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1956. The poem’s themes of drug use and homosexuality, a rallying cry for nonconformists, led to the arrest of Mr Ferlinghetti, as well as the City Lights store clerk, on charges of distributing obscenity. The resulting trial saw a parade of respected writers and academics testify for the defence, arguing the publication was protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. It worked — Judge Clayton Horn ultimately ruled the work could not be considered obscene due to its “redeeming social importance”.

As well as lifting censorship on a number of works, the trial thrust international attention on the work of other Beat Generation authors, such as William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, after whom an alleyway running alongside City Lights is named.

“There are multiple generations, local and distant, who derive a sense of comfort and inspiration from simply knowing that a place like City Lights can still exist,” added Elaine Katzenberger in her appeal. “A place that’s driven by ideals, unwavering in its commitment, grounded in a utopian vision of the potential for human creativity to make a better, richer world for all.”

El Hallazgo, Mexico City

Jude Webber

El Hallazgo bookstore in Mexico City © Jude Webber

Max Ramos, the owner of five tiny second-hand bookshops in Mexico City, knew when lockdown hit in March that he was going to need the support of some of his loyal clientele.

What he did not realise was how many new customers would also pitch in to keep his bookshops alive for the nearly two-month period from late March to late June when he was forced to close.

“I contacted some existing customers and told them I had some very special lots to sell — I needed to put some money aside,” said Ramos, who had to raise 95,000 pesos ($4,700) to cover lockdown rent and to pay his 14 staff. “It was the time to sacrifice some things.” He made 280,000 pesos in a week through the sale of volumes, which include “a group of Bibles, the most recent of which dated from 1850”. 

Max Ramos, owner of five bookstores in Mexico City © Jude Webber
Inside Ramos’s El Hallazgo bookshop © Jude Webber

But he also raised another 150,000 pesos by offering customers who spent 1,000 pesos twice that amount in discounts on future purchases. “Many of them didn’t know us — they were new clients, but they had a sense of solidarity.”

Just before the lockdown ended, Ramos was getting his flagship store, El Hallazgo (The Discovery) ready to reopen: the cramped 44 sq m shop in the trendy Condesa neighbourhood needed some reorganisation to comply with new social distancing rules. “We took some of the shelves outside on to the street while we repainted and sorted things out and locals were worried that we were shutting down,” said Ramos. “As soon as we reopened, they came to donate books immediately.”

Ramos, 51, opened El Hallazgo in December 1999 and today it boasts 8,500 volumes — primarily used but also including a few new titles from small publishing houses. In total, he has around 200,000 in his five bookshops — two of which specialise in collectors’ items and can be visited by appointment only.

Books of the Year 2020

From ideas for rethinking economics and politics to pure escapism, FT writers and critics choose their favourite titles of what has been an extraordinary year for books

The good thing about being a second-hand bookseller, he says, is the fact that the merchandise is already his own, allowing him to offer hefty discounts if need be — something he acknowledges regular bookstores may consider unfair competition.

As a result, El Hallazgo — which he opened with books he collected as a student — has managed to keep its head above water. Before Covid-19, the shop would attract about 80 customers a day, of which about 25 would make a purchase. “Now we get around 30 people but 25 to 28 of them buy,” he said.

Community spirit means a lot to Ramos, who shuns supermarkets and frequents his local stores on principle, even if they are more expensive. One of seven children, he was placed in care as a child, living in a range of institutions including religious and military establishments, because “my mother’s wealth was a very big pile of debts”. As a result, “community life has left a very deep imprint,” he says.

He never feared Covid-19 would ruin his business. “And if I’d had to close,” he says, “I’d just have found another way to open.”

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Get alerts on Books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article