Down and Out in Literary Paris

0
1694

This past December proved a sad one for the world of letters, which lost essayist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel – playwright and the first president of the Czech republic – and George Whitman, the 98-year champion of the Parisian staple bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. 

Thanks to Whitman’s legacy, Shakespeare & Co first opened in 1951 under the name Le Mistral, and has become a haunt for young literary pilgrims and Beat-wannabes. Tradition allows people to be given a place to sleep while volunteering in the shop and soaking up the Left Bank atmosphere. Though not the original Shakespeare & Co frequented by the infamous members of the Lost Generation – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Joyce – it does take its name from it. Whitman was a friend and admirer of Sylvia Beach, the owner of the original shop, and named his daughter after her. Ms Whitman formally took over ownership of the ‘new’ Shakespeare & Co in 2003.
I visited the bookshop for the first time just before the New Year and arrived before the shop opened, taking a few moments to ask loitering booksellers about Whitman. They were three young men, all returning booksellers: the first, a Cambridge student, looked like Buddy Holly; the second smoked insouciantly; and the third was a slightly older American who had just finished his first novel and was working on his second.
George Whitman was a bunch of contradictions, said Buddy Holly. Eccentric, said the Smoker. If he was irascible, it was because he was theatrical, switching salt and sugar bowls at one of his Sunday tea parties, or teasingly throwing a book at you. The Novelist called Whitman generous.
When I asked if all bookstore workers were writers, the three agreed that though only a small percentage of people are actually working on a book while they work at the shop, the majority of them nurture aspirations of writing, keep journals, or at the very least are ‘appreciators of literature’.
If  you visit Shakespeare & Co, just across the street from Notre Dame, you can see the tributes to Whitman. Obituaries are fastened to the windows; a large banner with his picture wishes him farewell. These signs salute not only the ‘Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter’, a man who championed young writers, but the fact that bookshops are not yet a thing of the past, still functioning as hives of activity and aspiration.

This past December proved a sad one for the world of letters, which lost essayist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel – playwright and the first president of the Czech republic – and George Whitman, the 98-year champion of the Parisian staple bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. 

Thanks to Whitman’s legacy, Shakespeare & Co first opened in 1951 under the name Le Mistral, and has become a haunt for young literary pilgrims and Beat-wannabes. Tradition allows people to be given a place to sleep while volunteering in the shop and soaking up the Left Bank atmosphere. Though not the original Shakespeare & Co frequented by the infamous members of the Lost Generation – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Joyce – it does take its name from it. Whitman was a friend and admirer of Sylvia Beach, the owner of the original shop, and named his daughter after her. Ms Whitman formally took over ownership of the ‘new’ Shakespeare & Co in 2003.

I visited the bookshop for the first time just before the New Year and arrived before the shop opened, taking a few moments to ask loitering booksellers about Whitman. They were three young men, all returning booksellers: the first, a Cambridge student, looked like Buddy Holly; the second smoked insouciantly; and the third was a slightly older American who had just finished his first novel and was working on his second.

George Whitman was a bunch of contradictions, said Buddy Holly. Eccentric, said the Smoker. If he was irascible, it was because he was theatrical, switching salt and sugar bowls at one of his Sunday tea parties, or teasingly throwing a book at you. The Novelist called Whitman generous.When I asked if all bookstore workers were writers, the three agreed that though only a small percentage of people are actually working on a book while they work at the shop, the majority of them nurture aspirations of writing, keep journals, or at the very least are ‘appreciators of literature’.

If  you visit Shakespeare & Co, just across the street from Notre Dame, you can see the tributes to Whitman. Obituaries are fastened to the windows; a large banner with his picture wishes him farewell. These signs salute not only the ‘Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter’, a man who championed young writers, but the fact that bookshops are not yet a thing of the past, still functioning as hives of activity and aspiration.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here