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Paris' Iconic Shakespeare And Company Bookstore In Trouble Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

Shakespeare & Company is one of the most famous booksellers in the world. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald hung out there along the Seine River in Paris. But the store is in trouble because of the pandemic. Rebecca Rosman has this story of the effort to keep it alive.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: You'd typically struggle to see the floor inside Shakespeare & Company, with people packing every inch of the cozy shop facing Notre Dame. But with France under a second mandatory shutdown, bookstores have been forced to close, save for click-and-collect curbside pickup.

SYLVIA WHITMAN: Here we are. And this is the stock room.

ROSMAN: The back room here, meanwhile, has temporarily been converted into an online sales and packaging center.

WHITMAN: We weren't really used to this much online activity. So our website keeps crashing (laughter).

ROSMAN: Owner Sylvia Whitman recently published a newsletter confessing revenues were down by about 80% since the start of the pandemic. She says the subsequent outpouring of support has been overwhelming. An average of 10 online orders a day has ballooned into an average of 500 a day, about what the store sold before the pandemic. But the nearly 70-year-old institution isn't out of the woods yet. So some famous literary friends are coming to its aid. British science fiction author Neil Gaiman says nothing can replace a physical space with four walls. And he remembers the owner of his favorite childhood bookstore, who...

NEIL GAIMAN: For reasons not only to himself, decided to talk to the 11-year-old boy who haunted the science fiction shelves. And he would recommend things. And when I'd bring them up to buy them, he'd tell me other things that I'd like. And he'd tell me things that would be coming out soon but weren't out yet. And I felt like I was getting secret book knowledge, that I was part of a brethren of books. And that feeling was absolutely magical.

ROSMAN: Gaiman is offering personalized doodles for anyone who spends 500 euros or more at Shakespeare & Company. An American author, Dave Eggers, is drawing portraits for people who do the same. But what bookshops really want is to be able to open up again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: In a recent interview with French government radio, former President Francois Hollande argued that if we're going to keep grocery stores open, why not keep bookstores open, too? After all, he said, books are a form of spiritual nourishment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOLLANDE: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: An online petition urging the government to allow bookstores to reopen has already garnered nearly 200,000 signatures.

Until she can unlock the doors, Shakespeare & Company owner Sylvia Whitman says she's clinging to advice from her father, George Whitman, the shop's original, eccentric owner.

WHITMAN: This is a picture of the fire.

ROSMAN: A fire took out a part of the shop's first floor in the early '90s. She reads a line from a book about its history.

WHITMAN: George said, don't mourn - organize, quoting the American labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill. And I just keep thinking about that because it can be quite paralyzing, the situation. And at the same time, we've just got to find solutions.

ROSMAN: Whitman is not alone. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.