My initial impression of Shakespeare and Company was far from love at first site. As a 14-year-old on my first trip to Paris, I couldn’t comprehend my father’s fascination with the tattered shelves and the writers’ names that lined the crumbling book covers. Who was Hemingway anyways and why would he fathom to write about something as dry as an old man and a sea? I buzzed my way through the dizzying crowds between the shelves and begged my family to hurry along so that we could go window-shopping at Galeries Lafeyette.
Nearly a decade later, the magic of the world’s most famous independent bookstore finally appeared before my wondering eyes. On a weekend trip to Paris in 2016, with my pierced nose deep into Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I wandered into the shop. My jaw dropped with awe as the masterpieces of the Lost Generation came to life. The stairs to the second floor creaked harmoniously under my feet, and it was history to my ears. The love poems of the upstairs reading nook rang freely, a symphony to my ears. The cracked, foggy mirror painted my reflection, and for an instant I wondered if my young teenage self who dreamed of fashion design would have been horrified with my bohemian writer’s style that had developed over the years. Yet a flicker of a voice caught my attention in the adjacent room before I could care to entertain the insecurities of what felt like a past life.
“It’s a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! Join us for culture and a cup of tea!” a grandmother’s Cockney accent sang gracefully from the front room of the top floor, inviting in all who were lucky enough to be in ear’s reach. With caution and curiosity, I stepped into the tearoom, wondering if I had accidentally fallen through the looking glass to a fairy tale world. “Don’t be shy, have a cup of tea and a biscuit!” gleefuly chimed the old lady, who introduced herself as Panmelys. I helped myself and gingerly took a seat on a thin-cushioned bench facing a floral-studded window’s view of Notre-Dame.
Two of the most delightful hours passed as I held tightly onto each word that Panmelys uttered while delicately imbibing the hot elixir in my dainty cup. The English afternoon tea party, I learned was a weekend treat that had been led by the bookstore’s owner, George Whitman, who dedicated himself to both feeding and inspiring the city’s starving writers. Panmelys took the tradition over at the time of his death, two days after his 98th birthday.
Panmelys explained that she did not arrive to the store until later in life. She was born in the East End of London, and raised in Wales, where she longed for a creative escape. “It was either be a nurse or an egg factory when you’re a poor girl,” she recalled matter-of-factly at the tea party. She opted for the former, clocking several years of hours as the self-proclaimed “world’s worst nurse” while obtaining her SRN certificate. Yet simultaneously, her life gained meaning through her work as a “feminist of the night”, keeping her poetry sharpened and at the ready for an alternative career path. Eventually, she did marry and give birth to 3 children, but not until after fleeing to Montreal, where she took her passion for poetry to a professional level by attending a dramatic arts school. After living in Quebec and New York, she found herself in Paris, where she happily turned the page on a fresh chapter of life. Here, she was born again, self-proclaiming her new identity as a poet and painter under the pseudonym Panmelys.
Panmelys carries on one sleeve a rich memory the bookstore’s history, from her interactions with its prized writers; to the “tumbleweed” young aspiring writers who inhabited the shop for days or months at a time in exchange for work and their promise to write; to the stray cats who became pets after taking over napping nooks between the books; to the bedbugs that filled the crevasses of furniture.
On her second sleeve, Panmelys stores a wealth of poems ready for a reading at a moment’s notice – everything from T.S. Eliot to Walt Whitman to poems of her own. She etched her name into the store through the creations of her words, writing everything from lighthearted “raps” (she proclaimed, “My grandson told me I couldn’t rap, and I proved him wrong!”) to heavier subjects, such as a poem on mass shootings in America, titled “Howling Bloody Hell”.
Yet Panmelys’s true life’s work is not in her own poetry, but rather in the inspiration that she injects into those who pass through the shop. She encourages each attendee of her tea parties to read a poem aloud for the crowd. Tossing the snobbery of critical assessment out the window, she proudly states that anyone can be a poet. Simply enunciate your words and SPEAK LOUDLY so that even she with she with her slight deafness can comprehend, and you’re on your way to the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, kid.
What if poetry simply isn’t your thing? Never to fear. Panmelys invites each of her guests to share something at the table, whether it’s a song, a story, or a tune on a ukulele. Within her tea parties, we have the opportunity to put forth any piece of ourselves that we choose, which in turn is digested in an environment of non-judgement and respect.
Through opening doors for exploration of our talents, Panmelys contributes to both the bookstore and the lives of budding creators. How does she know? She is reminded each time that she steps into the store of the pathway to expression that she has walked, from a poor Cockney girl to a poet that is notorious for her tea parties. She feels it not only from her “fame” within her nook of the world (she says, “These days, they even have blog posts about me!”), but from the countless lives that she continues to touch.
This past summer, when I returned to the bookstore to greet Panmelys, I told her I’d met her two years ago at her Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. She reciprocated the greeting, saying, “Let me take a look at your face… Oh yes! Are you the prize-winning poet?”
I laughed and said that it must have been the other blonde with a bohemian writer’s style. Yet I knew full well that this too was a part of the mad hatter’s magic. We all feel accepted as prize-winning creators in Panmelys’s eyes.