The Tumbleweeds


By Katherine Trout


The front window of Shakespeare and Company.

 

PARIS, FRANCE – Above the doorway of one of the quirky second-floor reading rooms of Shakespeare and Company, a portion of a bible verse is painted in capitalized, black letters.

BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE

Now one of the most famous bookstores in the world, Shakespeare and Company took its name from Sylvia Beach’s original Paris bookstore that closed down in 1941 during the Nazi occupation. Since the 1951 opening of the English-language bookstore in Paris, the phrase has become the official motto of Shakespeare and Company. Its store owners, previously George Whitman and now his daughter Sylvia, have been dedicated to living it out.

Every night in this reading room, the wooden benches below the walls of books transform into beds, and cushions and blankets appear on the floor.

The reading room becomes a bedroom for the Tumbleweeds.

Former shop owner George Whitman poetically claimed, “People who arrived in the shop blew in and out of the store by the winds of chance.” Whitman welcomed young, aspiring writers into the shop and invited them to sleep on the floors. In exchange for the free lodging, Whitman asked them for a few hours of work, a one-page autobiography typed on a store typewriter, and to read a book a day. These guests soon gleaned the name Tumbleweeds.

Today, under the jurisdiction of George’s daughter Sylvia, between 3 and 6 Tumbleweeds live in the store at a time. But when George ran the shop in the 1990s, up to 25 crashed there each night. Krista Halverson, director of the Shakespeare and Company publishing house, says, “Someone described it as Lord of the Flies. It was a lot of fun – it was a lot of romance, chaos and dirt.”

Since the beginning of the Tumbleweed program, more than 30,000 people have stayed the night. Most stay a week or two. But, says Halverson, “There’s a few people that have managed to pull it into months.”

Despite a 1990 fire that damaged the Tumbleweed room, 10,000 autobiographies still remain intact. Some of them include those of famous writers like Sebastian Barry (one of Ireland’s most famous contemporary writers) and David Rakoff (a famous Jewish essayist and New York City journalist). In Shakespeare and Company, Paris: History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, the recent book documenting the history of the store, Halverson and her publishing crew chose 25 autobiographies to include in the book. To make their choices, they read all 10,000.

An unexpected discovery for Halverson? Finding the autobiography of her ex-boyfriend.

“That was a surprise when I came across it,” Halverson admitted, laughing. He had come to the store in the early 90s “during that kind of Lord of the Flies time.” When George owned the shop, he didn’t bring any money to the bank, and instead let Tumbleweeds take turns sleeping on top of the money. “In the middle of the night, somebody came and pulled him up…and tried to get to the money. He fell off the bunk and broke his back.” Despite the heroic efforts to protect the money, “George was so mad about him getting injured that he kicked him out and told him he could never come back to the bookstore.” Eventually George softened and let him come back to the store to write his autobiography.

To become a Tumbleweed, it takes a very specific personality: brave and in need of little privacy. One can’t apply for it – instead, they have to show up in Paris without a place to stay and ask Sylvia. Most of the admitted Tumbleweeds are young writers – but Shakespeare and Company is serious when it says it won’t allow the Tumbleweeds to write about their experience living in the store. Events manager Adam Biles says, “We don’t want people to write about it. It remains something private, something a little mysterious, something intimate.”

Shakespeare and Company doesn’t want its “ANGELS IN DISGUISE” to be revealed, after all.

 

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