Shakespeare & Co bookstore owner dies

 

George Whitman, the US-born owner of Shakespeare and Company, a fabled English-language bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris and a magnet for writers, poets and tourists for close to 60 years, died yesterday in his apartment above the shop. He was 98 years of age.

He had not recovered from a stroke he suffered two months ago, his daughter, Sylvia, said in announcing his death. More than a distributor of books, Whitman saw himself as patron of a literary haven, above all in the lean years after World War II, and the heir to Sylvia Beach, the founder of the original Shakespeare and Company, the celebrated haunt of Hemingway and James Joyce.

As Whitman put it, "I wanted a bookstore, because the book business is the business of life. "Overlooking the Seine and facing Notre Dame Cathedral, the store, looking somewhat beat-up behind a Dickensian facade and spread over three floors, has been an offbeat mix of open house and literary commune.

For decades Whitman provided food and makeshift beds to young aspiring novelists or writing nomads, often letting them spend the night, a week, or even months living among the crowded shelves and alcoves. He welcomed visitors with large-print messages on the walls.

"Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise," was one, quoting Yeats. Next to a wishing well at the centre of the store, a sign said: "Give what you can, take what you need. George."

By his own estimate, he lodged some 40,000 people. Whitman's store, founded in 1951, has also been a favourite stopover for established authors and poets to read from their work and sign their books. Its visitors list reads like a Who's Who of US English, French and Latin American literature: Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Samuel Beckett and James Baldwin were frequent callers in the early days; other regulars included Lawrence Durrell and Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, all of them Whitman's friends.

Another was Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The two met in Paris in the late 1940s and discussed the importance of free-thinking bookstores. Ferlinghetti went on to found what became a landmark bookshop in its own right, City Lights, in San Francisco. Their bookstores would be sister shops, the two men agreed.

Whitman's beacon and enduring influence was Walt Whitman (no relation), who also ran a bookstore, more than a century ago. In a pamphlet, Whitman wrote that he felt a kinship with the poet. "Perhaps no man liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman," he said, "and I at least aspire to the same modest attainment."

Whitman will be buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris close to literary giants such as Oscar Wilde and Balzac.

His daughter continues to run the bookstore.

New York Times