In May 2009 our late Leighton and I did an event at Shakespeare and Co, the legendary bookshop in Paris, owned by George Whitman who had sadly passed away at 98 the week before. That's us with Leighton's wonderful Dutch son-in-law celebrating afterwards at a bistro across from Gare du Nord.
But at our event we knew George stood outside, according to his daughter Sylvia, listening as was his wont on the rickety staircase landing directing patrons to books and seats. Even in 2009 George kept his finger on the bookstore's pulse though Sylvia by then had taken over as manager. Then as now Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank remains a magnet for writers, poets and tourists for close to 60 years.
George saw himself as patron of a literary haven and the heir to Sylvia Beach, the founder of the original Shakespeare & Company, the celebrated haunt of Hemingway and James Joyce. The store overlooks the Seine and faces the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and spreads over three floors. The night Leighton and I spoke the upstairs was crowded, standing room only, and we think the microphone worked, a concession George agreed to, so people on the lower floors could hear. That night my friend Jean-Claude Mules, a retired Brigade Criminelle inspector showed up and held the crowd in thrall talking about his ten years working on the Princess Diana investigation. But the smell of this bookstore, paper, old wood and people stayed with me. With everyone who visits or crashes there since for decades George provided food and makeshift beds to young aspiring novelists or writing nomads among the crowded shelves and alcoves.
George, as many people have recounted, took in the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Henry Miller ate from the stewpot, but was too grand to sleep in the tiny writers' room. Anaïs Nin left her will under George's bed. There are signed photos from Rudolf Nureyev and Jackie Kennedy, signed copies of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
George opened his doors midday to midnight, and the deal then is the deal now: sleep in the shop, on tiny beds hidden among the bookstacks; work for two hours a day helping out with the running of the place; and, crucially, read a book a day, whatever you like, but all the way through, unless maybe it's War and Peace, in which case you can take two days….
At any time there are six or more young people from the compass points of the world, reading, talking, thinking, boiling spaghetti in the kettle, running across the road to the public showers, stacking, carrying, selling, stock-taking, and all in a spirit of energy and enterprise that is not to be found in any chain bookstores. They stay for two weeks or two months, and some just sleep outside on a bench until there's room inside.
A heaven of heavens. The store also hosts a tiny writers' room that anyone is free to use, warmed by a plug-in radiator. Now operated by George's daughter Sylvia the store runs a biennial literary festival and is this year launching a publishing company. The Left Bank building that is its home will expand into the space next door for a café. Monday nights, the shop has a free reading by a published writer while writers-in-progress "young hopefuls" meet in the library to read work to each other. Creative writing weekends are offered. By his own estimate, he lodged some 40,000 people. He named his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman and expected the bibliophiles residing in his store to work a few hours every day sorting and selling books. Yet he also invited uncounted numbers of people for weekly tea parties to his own apartment, or for late-night readings enriched with dumplings or pots of Irish stew. Some guests later described him as a kind and magnetic father figure to needy souls but also as a man who could throw tantrums and preside over the store’s residents, sometimes up to 20 people, like a moody and unpredictable dictator. That night I remember Sylvia moaning how her father disliked the 'new' stair railing replacing the one that had crumbled and called it too modern.
But there's a bit of the past that George kept alive and he's taken it with him. This from an obituary “I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions — just a few old socks and love letters, “ he wrote in his last years. Paraphrasing a line from Yeats, he added, “and my little Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.”