My Time with George Whitman at Shakespeare & Company, Paris

George Whitman just died at the ripe old age of 98.   He took over the famous Left Bank bookstore, Shakespeare & Co.,  after the the original owner, Sylvia Beach, left it at the onset of World War II.  She ran it as a publishing company that famously published James Joyce’s revolutionary novel Ulysses in 1922.  The book was banned in the U.S., no American publisher would publish it.  It was considered obscene.  But what is considered obscene in America is often considered great literature or art in Paris.  George Whitman took over the book store part after she left and ran it pretty much until he was in his 90s and infirm;  his daughter then took over.

I got to know George Whitman while in Paris in 1970 and a student at the Sorbonne.  I had gone to Paris because I spoke French, loved France, nouvelle vague movies as well as Luis Bunuel and Jacques Tati. And Flaubert, Gide, Balzac, Stendhal, Voltaire, ad infinitum.   I was also trying to delay draft induction into the army and be sent to Vietnam.

I liked the store for several reasons.  It was well-heated, had books everywhere, both in English and French.  Books were much cheaper there than at the French bookstores (books are $$$ in France).  There were lots of comfy chairs to peruse what you found there, and no obligation to buy.  I didn’t go there to socialize, though many people did.  George to his credit also took in the homeless, hungry, and lonely crowd.  Shakespeare & Co. was a true literary and social oasis.

Obits have written about George Whitman’s lifelong commitment to running the store.  I found him cantankerous, crotchety, and dyspeptic.  I must have told him that I was living there partly because I had a small trust fund that I and my brother and sister got when we turned 21.  I must have told George about this, because he began pestering me every time I came in to buy the store from him.  It was the last thing I wanted at the time, but he kept asking, but it seemed to me at the time that he, at 57, had had enough of it and wanted to unload the store.

I sometimes visited French libraries—don’t ask me why bookstores are called libraries in France……bibliothèque is the word for library—-but found the beautifully-bound paperbacks very expensive and beyond my budget.  One day, emerging from the Presses Universitaires near the Sorbonne, I was arrested by the C.R.S.–the French riot police–and thrown in jail.  There was a student demonstration at the Pantheon that I didn’t even know about.  But my carte de sejour said I was a Sorbonne student  and that was enough.  I have a police record (dossier) there….I found this out when I was applying for a work permit after returning and getting a teaching job a few years later.   I was awarded a knighthood a few years ago, and have a nice green medal framed in my office.  Now if I could only get my dossier to proudly frame and put alongside it.

George Whitman is gone, but Shakespeare & Co. is there for future generations of people, bibliophiles or not, to discover.  It’s there where it’s always been, on the Left Bank close to Notre Dame, Cluny, the Sorbonne……all the wonders of the Latin Quarter.

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