Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Farewell to Legendary Bookseller George Whitman

I recently saw the celebratory film about Paris and writers -- Midnight in Paris.   One scene shows the front of the legendary bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., in all its photogenic charm, reminding me that I had neglected to visit the bookstore when I was in Paris.  True,  as a young artist I was spending most all of my time in art museums and art stores.  Still, I am unable to resist a great bookstore, so why didn’t I remember to visit this famous landmark -- so perfect for English-reading, book-loving travelers?

So I was quite saddened to learn last month of the passing of 98 year old George Whitman, the founder of Shakespeare and Co., from writer Kristen Espinasse.  She has written her memories of him in her very enjoyable blog.  I was inspired to read more about the bookstore.  It is a reincarnation of the first (also legendary) Shakespeare and Co., which was founded by another American in Paris, Sylvia Beach, and was closed down in WWII.  Whitman’s bookstore, Le Mistral, opened in 1951, but after meeting Sylvia Beach she bequeathed the name Shakespeare and Co. to him.

One story about Whitman that impressed me concerned the entire year the bookstore was closed in the 60’s.  His papers weren’t in order so he didn’t sell a single book that year until the red tape was straightened out.  He kept the doors open, however, as a free library and guesthouse for writers from abroad in exchange for an hour or two of work a day.  A true book-loving, writer-loving individual!  The French grew to appreciate him too – the French Minister of Culture awarding him the Officier des Arts et Lettres medal for his contributions to the arts. He’s buried in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery near such writers as Collette and Balzac.

I still intend to visit the bookstore.  It’s still there, still catering to English-speaking visitors, still welcoming writers, still watched over by his daughter, and I believe by his dog and cat too. Long may it prosper!

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