Streets and Stories: Rue de l’Odéon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés

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Streets and Stories: Rue de l’Odéon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés
How do you pick a favorite street in Paris when the never ending maze of cobblestone streets are filled with amazing architecture, historic tales and lovely vistas? Well, it’s almost impossible, but one street stands out above the many. The Rue de l’Odéon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a short street that could make any Parisian scholar weak in the knees. In 1779, Rue de l’Odéon would start out its life as the Rue du Théatre-Français, leading to the Théatre-Français du Faubourg Saint-Germain at the top of the street. In 1797, the theater and the street would take the name Odéon, based on a Greek word for a place where people gathered in song. Stretching 600 feet downhill, the street hides a special feature of its own that few that walk it every day on their way to the Jardin du Luxembourg may even know. Prior to 1779, the well-heeled Parisians would rarely need to step out onto the muddied ground from their carriages that would deliver them into their cobbled courtyards. However, the Rue de l’Odéon holds the title for having the first sidewalks in all of Paris. Prior to this, only the Pont Neuf had sidewalks for the early flaneurs; now the theater goers could also enjoy clean shoes. The small area of Odéon that sits between the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Jardin du Luxembourg was once the grounds of the Princes de Condé, forced to sell off their land and buildings in the mid 1700s. Today it’s a small pocket of goodness filled with some of the best restaurants in Paris and a hotbed of literature in Paris from the 1920s until today. At number 7, a young Parisian teacher with a love of literature opened the first woman-owned bookshop in Paris. Adrienne Monnier would open La Maison des Amis des Livres on November 15, 1915, filling the shelves with French literature that quickly became a place for readers to gather. In 1917, a wide-eyed American girl was at the Bibliothèque National reading a review of Paul Fort’s Vers et Prose. The review noted that it could be purchased at A. Monnier’s bookshop in Odéon. “Suddenly something drew me irresistibly to the spot where such important things in my life were to happen”. Sylvia Beach would walk into the little gray bookshop and her life would change forever. Beach would spend a lot of time at the shop and she and Monnier would become involved. Falling in love with Adrienne and books, she decided to open her own shop dedicated to English books. The first location of Beach’s Shakespeare and Company would open in 1919 around the corner on Rue Dupuytren, eventually moving in 1921 to a larger store at 12 Rue de l’Odéon just down the street from Adrienne’s store. Adrienne spotted the restless antique dealer that occupied the spot one day packing and quickly passed the news to Beach. The bookstore became more like a lending library to subscribers, a gathering place and for some their personal postal box to pick up mail; Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce could be seen almost daily chatting amongst the piles of books. Joyce would use the store as his office as he worked away on his novel Ulysees that no one would publish. At the end of the road and not knowing what he would do, Sylvia Beach suggested she publish the manuscript herself, a huge undertaking that was constantly met with challenges including the fact it was banned in America. One day a young American writer, without any money in his pocket but with a thirst for reading, paid a visit. Ernest Hemingway described Beach this way: “a lively, shapely sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested”. Hemingway and Beach would remain close for years, and the famous author said “no one that I ever knew was nicer to me”. During WWII in 1941, a German officer spotted a copy of Finnegans Wake in the window and, with perfect English, asked Sylvia if he could buy it. “It’s not for sale,” she told him, which did not go over well. He came back two weeks later looking for the book that Sylvia had removed after his first visit. Enraged he told her they would be back to seize all of her goods. Enlisting all her friends, in two hours under the dark of night, the entire contents of her store was boxed up and moved to an empty apartment above; all the furniture was removed and a painter covered the name on the front of the store. Her inventory would survive, but sadly Sylvia was taken and imprisoned for six months, but would return to her beloved Odéonia as she and Adrienne called it. At number 10, English writer and activist Thomas Paine moved in to the Rue de l’Odéon in 1797. He spent the final years of the French Revolution writing The Rights of Man, heavily defending the Revolution. He was given an honorary French citizenship, even serving in the French National Convention. He ruffled feathers by voting against the execution of Louis XVI, instead suggesting he should be sent to America. Robespierre, enraged by the English author, had a new law decreed against foreigners sitting in French government and tossed him in prison. Released with the help of James Monroe, he returned to Odéon, living with Nicolas de Bonneville and his wife, where he would finish…

Lead photo credit : The rue de l'Odéon in Paris, looking south from the crossroads of the Odeon. Image credit: Wikipedia, Ralf.treinen (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Claudine Hemingway had a deep love of Paris instilled in her at an early age from her beloved grandparents. Following in their footsteps, she is happiest strolling the historic cobblestones soaking in the architecture, art and history. Highly sought after to plan your Parisian adventure that ventures off the beaten path and digs deeper into the historic and secret Paris. Contact her at [email protected] to plan your trip. You can follow her adventure and daily Paris history lesson on Instagram @claudinebleublonderouge


  • Phyllis Cartwright
    2019-12-06 12:25:42
    Phyllis Cartwright
    Love this Claudine! One of my favorite areas to explore as well. Merci!