A bibliophile in Paris
INDIFFERENT as he was to modern amenities, George Whitman took some convincing to snuff out the candles for good and install electric lights in his Paris bookshop in 1959. His ramshackle labyrinth of dusty nooks and sagging bookshelves, some secured with twisted coat-hangers, was more a commune than a shop. Over the 60 years since he bought the place from an Arab grocer, using inherited money, an estimated 40,000 travellers have slept among the books, on makeshift beds or the floor, in his “socialist Utopia that masquerades as a bookstore”.
Mr Whitman expected guests to recite or write (choosing “cannonball” words, preferably), or at least help with chores. Most stayed a week or so; several settled in for half a decade. Le Mistral bookshop, renamed Shakespeare and Company in 1964, was a fitting endeavour for a self-described communist. He liked to say that all humanity was his teacher.
Over the years he bought more bits of the 16th-century building at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, just opposite Notre Dame on the Left Bank. He otherwise spent little. Vacation, he said, was moving from the book-lined third-floor flat that filled up for weekly breakfasts and afternoon tea parties, to the first-floor “writer’s room”. Usually reserved for favoured guests, it held prized first editions (including James Joyce’s “Ulysses”) and books signed by guests including Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and the Beat Generation icons William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg.
Although increasingly wealthy, Mr Whitman lived as though he were poor. His few part-time employees were paid modestly. Travellers in his “Tumbleweed Hotel” helped out for nothing. He even put shoppers to work. Occasionally pretty young female shoppers would be asked to watch the till for a few minutes. He sometimes returned hours later.
Rather than fuss with cleaning products, guests were told to scrub the floor with water and newspaper. The carpet could be glued down just fine with pancake batter and a hot iron. Mr Whitman encouraged shoppers to donate old shopping bags. Perfectly good food could be scavenged from rubbish bins.
Security, too, was lax. Mr Whitman couldn’t be bothered with alarm systems. Unwilling to buy a safe or make daily bank runs, he stored large wads of cash in books displayed for sale behind the cashier’s desk and even elsewhere in the shop and reading rooms. More than once, incredulous shoppers handed over cash-stuffed books to the guests manning the till.
Priority for the roughly 15 sleeping spots was given to travellers writing poems or a book. He gave hopefuls a yes or no within seconds. Some who were let in later surmised that he wanted to teach them a lesson. Mr Whitman once pulled off a sock and handed it to a guest who gave himself airs. He was to mop up the shop-cat’s mess and return the sock clean. Seeing him recoil, Mr Whitman announced that he had failed “a test of character, man.”
Poetry and smoke
At 12 he had spent a year in China, where his father, Walter, taught physics at Nanking University. After a Salem and Boston education he began, from 1935, to travel, often on foot, through Mexico and Central America and, after finding work on a sugar freighter, in Hawaii. Military service took him to Europe in 1941. After the war he opened a “book lounge” in Taunton, Massachusetts, and then settled in Paris in 1948. Rather than travel any more, he brought the world to himself.
Famous guests included James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Durrell, Langston Hughes, Jacques Prévert and Richard Wright. “I’m ready for some fun!” he would say, before plunking down in a squeaky chair behind the cashbox to make small-talk and wisecracks, and to offer shoppers tea, wine or invitations to the next poetry reading or communal dinner. His generosity was sometimes misunderstood. Once, after telling three young female backpackers that he had a bed for them, the reply was, “I bet you have, you dirty old bastard!”
In 2000 the daughter he fathered at 69, Sylvia Beach Whitman, returned to live in Paris. Her mother had whisked her to England when she was six, breaking her father’s heart. Now he seemed to grow younger and less crotchety. He officially retired in 2006, but continued to live upstairs and roam the shop his daughter owned and ran. Shakespeare and Company now has a real cash register, a phone, a website, wireless internet, proper heating and fewer bugs. The beds are still free.
On a September evening ten years ago Mr Whitman lit a candle again, held it to his head, burned away clumps of gray hairs and patted out the flames, as he had done for decades, to the delight and feigned horror of two teenage girls. In the smoky writers room, he then recited a love poem penned in his youth. It ended thus:
Perhaps no man has ever given as much to travelling strangers, lest, as an inscription on a shop wall reads, “they be angels in disguise”."Each dream, each midnight and each dawn
Are garments, thoughts of her put on
Each beam of light from the empyrean blue
With her enfolds the good, the beautiful, the true"
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