Friday 24 February 2017

George Whitman

The legendary bookstore owner created a literary haven, writes Ulick O'Connor

GEORGE Whitman, owner and manager of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, has died aged 98. He had created what was probably one of the most unique bookshops in the world. He opened it at 37 37 Rue de la Bucherie in the early-Fifties.

Sylvia Beach, who published Joyce's Ulysses, had owned the first Shakespeare and Company and she gladly handed the title to George Whitman. He would steer the business through the changing tides of the following decades with the watchful eye of a mariner in a storm. The tall centuries-old building contained not only a bookshop but became a place where writers gathered and "the supremacy of the book was maintained".

A room was reserved in Shakespeare and Company for authors who wished to work on a book and who could remain there for up to six months without having to pay rent. Another room contained comfortable couches provided for those who wished to take down books from the shelves and browse. The shelves of Shakespeare and Company provided a blend of up-to-date publications selected by George and a unique selection of nearly any book that one might want in a modern context.

George insisted on having books of great value side by side with others in the shop but no security was installed to stop books being stolen. As a result, many valuable books vanished. At one time George was losing as much as €50,000 a year through stolen books. When I asked him about this, George defended his situation by saying that surveillance would reduce the number of people who got pleasure from good literature. He would explain with a smile that his shop was "a little socialist republic pretending to be a bookshop", and would point out that in Cuba the average life expectation was much higher than in America.

Leading literary figures associated themselves with Shakespeare and Company such as Henry Miller, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett and Leonard Cohen. Many of these would give readings in the packed room upstairs and use the place for meeting other writers. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American poet, was so impressed by what he met within Shakespeare and Company that he would found City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, his famous bookshop in San Francisco.

I first met George in 1961, and after that spent most of my Christmases in Paris. On Christmas Eve I would go to dinner in the Shakespeare bookshop with him and a few friends. He was a magnificent cook in the New England tradition, and a marvellous host as he steered the conversation among a few writers whom he had chosen to join him for his Christmas feast.

Less than two decades ago, it seemed though that George was in serious trouble. A property developer had purchased the building and there was a probability of demolition and development on the site. But help came from a source near home. His daughter Sylvia (named after Sylvia Beach), whose mother had divorced George, and who had not seen him for some years, was to come back and join him in the battle to save the building from its purchaser.

Sylvia was a beautiful young actress who was to restore the shop to its former glory and place it on a permanent basis. She had inherited that blend of creative insight and commercial brilliance that had enabled her father to turn a bookseller's enterprise into an artistic wonder world.

I did not go to Paris this year, but I remember my last dinner with George and a few of his friends. He had prepared the meal himself with excellent New England cooking but kept in the background listening to the conversation, purring with delight.

I went to see him two days later before I left to go home. He was resting in bed upstairs, enveloped in that acute consciousness of self which came across without a smidgen of malice to those in his company. We talked for about an hour and then I left.

As I walked down the six flights of stairs, I looked through the window on the first landing across the river. There it stood in the morning skies, as if arranged by George -- Notre Dame, with its dark Gothic spears rising into the morning sky. I remembered his comment: "When I look at Notre Dame, I think that the bookshop is an annex of the church, a place for anyone who is restless over there."

Letters, Page 31

Sunday Independent

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