George Whitman, bookseller extraordinaire, friend of writers and travelers, mischievous raconteur, proprietor of the iconic Shakespeare & Co. in Paris (so named in honor of Sylvia Beach’s original Parisian bookshop), has passed on.
Many Parisian travelers, writers, artists, wayfarers have personal anecdotes of their encounters with George Whitman. As do I.
In 1990, my traveling companion and I found ourselves in a Paris we couldn’t afford and were on the cusp of having to abandon the city. A friend of mine had told us before going that sometimes the Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore put people up for free. Being a bookseller myself at the time, we thought it was worth a shot.
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The unmistakable George Whitman sat behind a cluttered desk in an entire room of cluttered bookshelves. I approached him.
“Hello,” I said, “I was told that sometimes travelers could stay here and I was wondering ….”
“NO!” he shouted before I could even finish my sentence. “That’s a lie! You can’t stay here!”
I was so taken aback, I didn’t argue and instead just turned away. So much for that idea, I thought.
But being in such a jumbled, ramshackle bookshop had its charm and my companion and I stayed and browsed, fading into the background chaos of the towering stacks, the stacked pillars of books, the jumbled variety of printed matter. This was a serious bookstore, there were no postcards or souvenir Eiffel Towers or T shirts for sale.
I’ve been a collector of Beat Generation literature since I was a young man and so always look for works by the Beat writers, the famous – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Burroughs; the not as famous – John Wieners, Lew Welch, Philip Lamantia; and those on the periphery of Beat – Brautigan, Rexroth, Kesey, etc. That day, in Shakespeare & Co., in a box of broadsides and various pamphlets and small press publications, I came upon a stapled edition of poems by Jack Hirschman, one of those peripheral Beats whose actual work I didn’t much know but whose name I did. I’ve forgotten what small edition it was, some chapbook, but it did not have a price in it and I knew that I didn’t already own it so I thought if they didn’t want too much for it, I’d buy it.
I took it over the George Whitman. “How much do you want for this?” I asked, and handed it to him.
He looked at it. “Hirschman?” he said, “you know Hirschman?”
Without another word, he opened the top drawer of the desk, took out a key on a brass key chain, and handed it to me.
“The key is to the small library, top of the stairs, 1st floor, to the right. You can stay there. See me after you get settled, you’ll have to cover the desk while I go out later.”
Just like that.
For three days, my companion and I slept in a tiny narrow bed in the “library,” a room packed floor to ceiling with not-for-sale books, mostly first editions of the greats – Hemingway, Joyce, Pound, Baldwin, Burroughs, Miller, Nin, Stein. It was like sleeping in a rare book vault. And it was free – excepting the few hours I sat behind the desk and did what came naturally at the time, selling books.
For George Whitman’s generosity and his tireless encouragement of literature and the avant-garde (even in the smallest gestures such as rewarding my interest in a writer he, George, deemed worthy, by helping me and my friend), I will always be grateful.
Out the small window of our room we could look down on the sidewalk in front of the shop and the Seine and, to the right, the weighty face of Notre Dame. I will never know Paris again as I knew it then, in 1990, sheltered under the creaking eaves of George Whitman’s book palace and writers’ refuge, the magnificent Shakespeare & Co.
Adieu, Mr. Whitman, and merci beaucoup.