When I first arrived in Paris I immediately loved it. Maybe I had watched too many movies but it felt romantic. I had read so many Henry miller books I felt like I already knew the city. It didn’t pretend to be fancy or flashy or perfect. The cab drivers were rude, people didn’t offer to help each other and everyone smoked. I loved it. I didn’t speak the language but I didn’t need to say much. Food, sleep, taxi, bus. I could get by. It was a cloudy day. The sky was low and covered with different shades of grey but it didn’t feel gloomy or sad, it felt moody and thoughtful. I couldn’t be more excited. I felt cool. Just by proximity. Men wore untucked lose fitting button down shirts with the collars messed up and women wore tight clothes with skinny belts.
When I got off the bus I was on the Seine. I would learn that it was small river than ran through the city. I followed the sidewalk up and down along the river. The cobbled road busy with cars swooshing by the line-up of artists sitting at makeshift booths selling their paintings and drawings. I was in awe.
I don’t remember who had told me about the Shakespeare Book Company, or if I had just read about it from Henry Miller or Anais Nin, or one of the many writers I was obsessed with. But I did remember that I had heard artists could stay there for free. I didn’t know if it was for real, or how it even worked but I had come to Paris with less than $100, and I needed to make it last.
I asked around, “Shakespeare Book Company?” Everyone knew it.
I expected the bookstore to be on a lonely side street or a back street far away from the hub of the city, but it wasn’t. It was right in the middle of everything, right on the Seine and directly across from the Notre Dame Cathedral.
It looked old, and a little dilapidated and the sign had seen better days. I walked in to find it more spacious than I expected. It was a big store, but not a lot of room to walk. Books crammed the shelves from floor to ceiling. Every nook and cranny was filled. There was a big chandelier and old wood slats across the ceiling. The dull cream decades old paint was peeling off the little bits of wall that peaked through between the pile high books. Some of the hallways were so narrow you had to walk through them sideways. It was a book hoarders paradise. There were ladders here and there to reach the books way up and deep blue and red velvet chairs pushed into corners and under stairs, encouraging book lovers to sit and read them. Quotes were hand-painted on the walls, like “Live for Humanity” and “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest they be angels in disguise”.
I wandered around the store, already feeling at home amongst the musty books. Upstairs, there was a short grey-haired man in his 50s , “Can I help you?”
He hadn’t even tried to speak to me in French,
“Yes, I need a place to stay and I heard…”
“Come with me” He looked me up and down before he moved.
I followed him up another flight of stairs. The carpet was green and there was a large paper-filled dark wood desk by the window. He sat behind it. I could see all of Paris over his shoulders.
He opened his desk drawer. Maybe there was an application I had to fill out?
He pulled out a blank sheet of white paper.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Riva… and I’m from Canada”.
“No.” He shook his head. “Write me an essay. I’ll decide if you are welcome to stay.”
I took the blank white sheet of paper from his hand. He began busying himself with files on his desk. I looked around and found a corner on the floor to write. I sat cross-legged on the floor. After a while I needed more paper. It’s hard to say how long I was there.
When I was finished, I walked back up to his desk and waited for him to look up.
“Here you go” I turned to leave.
I sat down in one of the wooden chairs across from his desk. He leaned back in his chair and began to read. I watched him. He was very serious. His face didn’t move much. He took his time. Pausing to turn around and look out the window. It really was a great view. I sat quietly and politely. I tried not to look around too much, I didn’t want him to think I was a snoop.
When he finally looked up, he didn’t have much expression, he just said, ‘Ok’.
He got up from his chair and walked with me as he explained the rules.
“Everyone does chores here. You’ll get yours in the morning”.
He walked me around the store and pulled open a heavy velvet curtain between one of the bookshelves. “You can have this one” Beyond the curtain was a single bed inset between the shelves. There was a pillow and a blanket but no sheets. The mattress was a deep red thin foam with what felt like a velour cover. Once I looked around I noticed many of these hideaway bed cubbies all over the store. People were sitting on them, patrons laying on them, they were reading nooks. A cat strolled by me and jumped up on the piano that was pilled high with books.
You couldn’t leave your stuff at the store and you had to be out by the time they opened in the morning. I had to be inside the store by the time they closed, otherwise I would be locked out. I couldn’t go to sleep until the store closed.
I had a few hours before the store closed. I was looking forward to sleeping amongst the books. They felt like my friends. I was so excited to be alone with them I couldn’t contain myself.
I hoisted my baby blue backpack on and headed outside to find something to eat. Nearby, there were a line-up of artists selling their works on the sidewalk. I smiled and slowly walked by. I caught a glimpse of a crepe cart across the street and strolled over. It was $2 for a crepe with nutella. This is what I ended up living on.
Two crepes a day, one for breakfast and one for dinner. How could you go wrong? It’s all I needed to sustain myself. The crepes were delicious. Fresh and warm and just the right amount of chewy. Even though the guy at the crepe cart didn’t speak English, we got to know each other…
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