During my recent layover en route to an IYHF meeting in Cologne, I visited the iconic Shakespeare and Company bookshop in central Paris. Whenever the city is on my itinerary, I faithfully make a visit to the bookshop and always come away especially invigorated … although until now I could not quite pinpoint why.
“Iconic” may be an overused term, but not in this case. Since 1951, the shop has become widely known as a way-station for English speaking readers seeking books while on their travels. It’s that thirst for reading which brings together a diverse crowd of backpackers, young writers and seasoned travelers who seem to perpetually fill the establishment. The clientele are a big part of the experience.
But so are the surroundings. Winding aisles, shelves of books squeezed floor to ceiling, and unexpected nooks distinguish the well-worn 19th century building. The thousands and thousands of titles, as eclectic as the customers, are occasionally interrupted by seemingly random thoughts posted by the owner. Here, spending hours in pursuit of the perfect read seems the norm, if not something much more.
HI-USA hostels also are spaces where people and place creatively intertwine. And our hostels too produce their own unique chemistry, often meaningful if not unforgettable. Yet how do you characterize it?
At Shakespeare and Company, I found my answer painted on a step at the entry of the shop: LIVE FOR HUMANITY. Although I never noticed it before, those three words had been there from the start, faded by the decades but recently re-painted. With them, I finally grasped how the various elements – the books, the people, the ambiance — were intended to come together.
Beyond simply selling books, the founder held a lofty aspiration … which I sensed, but could never fully put together. I feel like now I understand, and the whole experience means even more.
HI-USA has a strong cross-cultural exchange mission that also might not be immediately obvious to everyone. When some people hear of hostels, they think of beds. Of course, we are about much more. It got me to thinking: what are the three words that belong on our front step?