Shakespeare and Company Paris Book Shop
The following is an article that I wrote that was commissioned by an editor at the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto on spec in 1989. But it was rejected for reasons I cannot remember or fathom and it was never used anywhere. I had been slogging for a decade trying to published journalism, and always got rejected. (I would end up having my first journalism stories published the following year.) I dug this up in December 2011 upon the news of the death of George Whitman, the owner of the store, at age 98. I was agreeably surprised by the world it portrayed, and very disappointed in retrospect, that the story never got used. But now it acts as a great museum-piece photograph of Shakespeare and Company as it existed in 1989, and come to think of it, as it has always existed. I have not changed a single word or any punctuation but publish below the story precisely as it appears in my computer file as written in 1989. Today the store is run by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, pictured as a child below.
Nineteen-eighty-nine is the bicentennial of the French Revolution, sure. But it’s also the 70th year since an English-language bookstore named Shakespeare and Company was opened in Paris’s
Latin Quarter by an American named Sylvia Beach. And it’s doubtful she could have imagined in 1919 that a store with the same name, same spirit, would stand within a mile of the original site nearly three quarters of a century later.
Sylvia Beach ran her shop for twenty-two years until she was forced to close in 1941 by the German occupation. But while she occasionally visited this bookshop on the rue de la Bucherie, facing Notre Dame cathedral, she did not have the satisfaction of seeing the name she made famous placed over its doors. She died in 1962 and the name was changed in 1964–the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth–by the current proprietor. He is the thin, somewhat gaunt, highly-strung man with a goatee, named George Whitman, who is this year celebrating his Shakspeare and Company’s twenty-fifth anniversary.
“I came to Paris from Boston in 1946 as a volunteer to help war orphans. But I ended up studying French civilization at the Sorbonne,” said Whitman.
And if he failed to help war orphans he has succeeded in creating one of the most unusual shelters for the temporarily homeless in Paris.
“I’ve put up easily over 25,000 people here since I opened this shop in 1951,” he said as he lept out of his seat to guide a puzzled customer.
Helping customers, supervising staff, and being interviewed, Whitman is accustomed to doing several things at once. The two floors of his shop are simultaneously a bookstore, tearoom, residence for transient writers and travelers, center for literary readings, and publishing house. Whitman lives on a third floor.
While at the Sorbonne Whitman met another American student, Lawrence Ferlinghetti–Beat poet and future owner of the City Lights bookstore and publishing house in San Francisco. When he left France Ferlinghetti offered Whitman his apartment on the rue des Beaux Arts. But this other future bookstore owner said he really wanted a place overlooking the Seine.
Whitman got the place over the Seine. And made a gift of it not only to the many transients, but to Ferlinghetti and a multitude of other well-known writers who have accepted the post of “writer-in-residence” while staying in the “Writer’s Room” on the second floor.
Alan Sillitoe, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg are among the writers who have stayed in the small rectangular room with a narrow hilly bed, a desk and typewriter, and a closet equipped with a sink and hotplate. A large window with a perfect view of the cathedral casts light on walls lined with the most treasured books in the establishment. First editions of many of the most important works by the expat writers who spent time in Paris. Among the books are original Shakespeare and Company editions of ULYSSES, and rare copies of ‘transition’ magazine, that published Joyce’s “Work in Progress”, FINNEGANS WAKE.
One regular guest in the Writer’s Room is Christopher Cook Gilmore, author of the novels ATLANTIC CITY PROOF and the upcoming JERSEY DEVIL trilogy to be published by Lynx Books. Gilmore divides his time between summers in Atlantic City and winters in Morocco. En route he spends a few weeks every fall and spring in the Writer’s Room where, like all writer’s-in-residence, he is not obliged to pay rent, but is expected to give a reading.
“I first met George Whitman in May ’68,” said Gilmore at his most recent reading. “The streets of the Latin Quarter were barricaded by the police against the rioting students. George had barricaded the front of the shop with Anais Nin books.”
A visitor’s first impression of the shop is one of chaos. Gilmore said when he first came, “I took one look and said, ‘George! This place is a disaster area!’ George said, ‘Well you want to know where there’s a bigger disaster area?’ Then George pointed up to his own head.”The guests who are not published authors do not stay in the “luxury accommodations” of the Writer’s Room. These students and other book-loving travelers have the more spacious but less private rooms of the “Sylvia Beach Memorial Library.” While Sylvia Beach used to lend books to the poor expatriate community, the books in this library–Whitman’s own collection–may not be removed from the premises.
Invited guests may sit in the armchairs or lie on the beds and read, taking a break to look up at the thick wooden beams of the ceiling, the book-covered walls, or out the window at the Seine or Notre Dame. At night the rooms sleep up to seven people.
A kitchen with a sink, stove, and refrigerator separates two of the three library rooms. On the wall is a notice stating that all visitors are obliged to write an autobiography within the first few days of their stay. It may be any length, but it must contain certain facts, such as a passport number.
While these guests are not charged in currency, they are asked to help out around the store.
“We have to work at least an hour in the store every day,” said Michael Cannizzaro, sitting in the chair behind the tin cash box (there is no electronic cash register). “I’ve been living here on an off for the past four or five months while traveling around Europe.”
Cannizzaro, an American in his mid-twenties, has some experience as a journalist but came to Europe to write short stories. When asked if he felt like he was living in the tradition of Hemingway through Shakespeare and Company he said, “Heck no. Hemingway had a wife and kid to support and lived off a stipend. I don’t. When I say I have to hunt in the park for pigeons to eat, I mean it.”
Cannizzaro likes the informality of Shakespeare and Company. The fact that he can come and go anytime he pleases. He said there was currently an international group of boarders: two Irishmen, three Poles, a Swede, and another American. All these guests contribute daily to the chores of running the bookstore.
“We have to open it up, put books on the shelves, help with the inventory and aid the public,” said nineteen-year-old Dinora Padrino of Washington, D.C. “But usually we tell
people they have to look for the book themselves. If they find it, they find it.”
Because the image of chaos of Shakespeare and Company is is not just an illusion. Few books are in alphabetical order. Sylvia Beach’s memoir titled SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY was found in the Theater section, and not under Autobiography.
But somehow the store stays afloat. In the early years Whitman used to sell only second-hand books. But later he began selling new ones, mostly paperbacks. Today most of the front part of the voluminous shop sells new paperbacks, while the back rooms and a separate room off to the side sell second-hand books.
“A lot of American tourists come to buy books about Paris,” said Padrino. “Tourist guidebooks and maps mostly.”
Few staff members are paid a salary and much of the shop has been constructed for free by the visitors over the years.
Whitman said that a Shakespeare scholar from Kentucky built the front desk, a Danish handyman built the stairs, and a large number of the visitors have contribunted to excavating the cellar of the 400-year-old building in exchange for free board.
Whitman has also received help in carrying on the tradition of Shakespeare and Company as publishing house. 1989 will reveal the third issue of his ‘Paris Magazine’ to
coincide with the bicentennial. Some of the local expat American writing community has helped out in the creation of the magazine as in years past.
The first issue was published in 1967 and contained work by, among others, Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginsberg, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The second issue was Autumn ’84 and contained poetry, fiction, and articles by new, old, and transient English-language writers in Paris and an interview with playwright Eugene Ionesco. The magazine is funded by Whitman and sold for a small price.
“The thing I liked most about the last issue,” said Cannizzaro, “was that one of the main reasons George published it again was to write an editorial detracting from everything he said in the editorial he wrote in the first issue seventeen years before!”
A week before the new magazine’s scheduled appearance, Whitman was asked who the new contributors were.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The pages have all gone off to the printers so I can’t show you.”
When prodded by this reporter again about the contents of the magazine, Whitman said he just couldn’t remember, “You don’t have as many cob-webs up in your brain at your age as I do at mine.”
No one knows Whitman’s exact age. Perhaps not even Whitman. It seems very probable, however, that it’s at least as old as the name of the store founded by Sylvia Beach.