No matter where I am in Paris, or whatever the hour, I always seem to find my way to the Left Bank. On foot, of course. Paris is a walker's city, and if you are alone, you will never want for company in the jumbled little streets of the Latin Quarter just around the corner from those two mandatory tourist sights, Notre Dame and Shakespeare and Company. Notre Dame has its admirers day and night. Passing the west portals about 10 o'clock one recent evening, I saw a crowd of schoolchildren file off a bus to pay their respects. As for Shakespeare and Company, that curious little English-language bookshop at 37 Rue de la Bucherie just opposite Notre Dame is open from noon to midnight and is always good for fresh conversation.
On my first night in town, delivered from New York in 3 hours, 30 minutes by Concorde and fully awake, I set off from my Right Bank quarters in the Marais-Beaubourg district as if on automatic pilot for the Left Bank. I passed the gleaming wedding-cake facade of the Hotel de Ville, the city's official reception and government building; crossed the Ile de la Cite with Notre Dame on my left; and alighted on the Quai de Montebello, where by day the stalls peddle books, posters, cards, and prints - and little hand-lettered signs warn: ''Regardez, Questionnez, Mais Touchez Pas.m ''
Just opposite the quai and only a half-block from Shakespeare and Company is a pocket park called Rene Viviani Square, named for a politician and journalist who lived from 1863-1925. Shaded little green spaces are a rare find in the cramped and stony Latin quarter, and this one happens to have a wonderful view of Notre Dame at a three-quarter angle. In fact it is the ultimate three-star view, according to the Michelin green guide.
On the sidewalk in front of Shakespeare and Company is a 5-franc stall of secondhand books and a rack of the paperbacks forever popular with Left Bank denizens and drifters: Hemingway's ''A Moveable Feast,'' Orwell's ''Down and Out in Paris and London,'' Kerouac's ''On the Road.'' Just inside the door a sign on a shelf announces: ''All the characters are fictitious in the bookstore Henry Miller calls a Wonderland of Books.''
Surely the owner himself, George Whitman, is a kind of fictitious character. When I met the lean and wispy-bearded Mr. Whitman, he was seated at a makeshift desk in the middle of the cluttered shop, making change from a shoe box and stamping each purchased paperback on its title page with the house seal: a likeness of Shakespeare and the words ''Kilometer Zero Paris,'' a reference to the Place du Parvis beside Notre Dame, from which all points in France are measured.
As I took out my notebook, Mr. Whitman looked up and said, ''Do you want a room? I may have something for you next week.'' For years he has been providing free lodging - a few days, a week - for poets and writers just arrived in Paris. In the ensuing conversation, which began at his desk and spread to a tour of his 13-room walk-up above, Mr. Whitman sketched in his history:
Ran a bookshop in Salem, Mass.; came to Paris in 1946 on the GI Bill; got a diploma at the Sorbonne; opened a shop in the early 1950s called Le Mistral and changed it a decade later to its present name in honor of his late friend and mentor Sylvia Beach, whose original Shakespeare and Company on the Rue de l'Odeon had been a lending library, haunt of the Lost Generation writers of the 1920s, and first English publisher of James Joyce.
In ''A Moveable Feast'' (Mr. Whitman's top seller), Hemingway titled a chapter ''Shakespeare and Company'' and said of Sylvia Beach, who gave him advice and loaned him books when he was very poor, ''No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.'' George Whitman named his daughter Sylvia. And it was in his own shop, perhaps not unlike the original which Hemingway called ''a warm, cheerful place,'' that Mr. Whitman met his future wife, Felicity. ''I would say 100 people have gotten married who met here,'' he said. ''I was practically a professional best man.''
He showed me into a little book-lined room with a cot and a desk in the window that looked onto the Seine and, through the trees, to Notre Dame. ''This would be your room if you needed it. Books have been written in here. Alan Sillitoe slept on that bed, and Ferlinghetti may be there next month.''
If you aren't a struggling writer, but want to stay in the quarter, there is a fine-looking two-star hotel, the Esmeralda, just around the corner on the Rue St. Julien le Pauvre, charging only about $25 for two during this weak-franc (7 to the dollar) period.
In the narrow little streets behind Rue de la Bucherie are numerous tiny movie houses, which in September were playing ''Easy Rider,'' ''Midnight Express ,'' ''The Sting,'' and an Elia Kazan retrospective that included ''Baby Doll,'' ''Viva Zapata,'' and a film portrait of Kazan ''avec le participation de Robert de Niro.'' In the lively, huddled lanes where the Rue de la Huchette, Rue Xavier Privas, and Rue St. Severin come together, there is always an impromptu outdoor show. It takes very little, after all, to form a crowd in Paris. I found 35 people or so huddled around a little blonde girl having her portrait drawn.
Here the smells are of Greece and North Africa. In the windows of the little restaurants there are pigs roasting on spits and shish kebobs lined up in rows waiting to be grilled. It was all I could do to find French food in the quarter, but I finally settled into the five-table Creperie du Quartier Latin. The crepes started at only 13.50 francs (less than $2). At the next table an American student was telling his companion, a young Frenchwoman, about Kerouac, and an American couple was arguing over whether the revolving brown log in the restaurant window across the lane was beef (her opinion) or chocolate (his). I could have settled the dispute (it was not chocolate), but I was happy to be in Paris, on the Left Bank, with a crepe on my plate.