George Whitman, the founder of Shakespeare and Company bookshop (in its current incarnation), has died. He was 98 years old. For those close to the shop, it was no surprise, as George had suffered a stroke two months ago. Even for those not close to the shop, to die at 98 is no surprise. But none of that mitigates how heartbreaking it is to see him go.
I will skip the personal reminiscences because they’re not that interesting, and other people will do that better; I met first met George in 1999 and met him again over the years, but my more profound relationship was with his shop, and with the literary legacy he carried out. I’ve used different words at different stages to describe my interest in Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company: first I was seduced by the myth of the Lost Generation; later, as a scholar of transatlantic modernism, I came to see the shop in sociological terms as an important nexus in the sustaining of an epoch-defining literary hub. The present-day shop borrows from both categories: it gestures at this illustrious history and extends it through the 1950s and the Beat Generation on to the present moment, when it has once again, under the guidance of George’s daughter Sylvia Whitman, assisted by Jemma Birrell, David Delannet, Hilary Drummond, Thomas Collard, Terry Craven, and Linda Fallon (my apologies to the others I’m probably leaving out, not to mention the volunteers, interns, and Tumbleweeds), become a meeting-point for a group of expatriate writers, as well as an impressive array of Anglophone literary luminaries as they pass through town.
Though– let’s be honest– none of us who hang around it can claim to be a Stein or a Hemingway, our Shakespeare and Company does play a similar role in the Anglophone community. No, they don’t lend out their books, you must buy them, but they will buy your old ones, or let you trade them in for something of equal value. You can attend readings, and have a glass of wine on the house; and you can sit in the upstairs library (The Sylvia Beach Memorial Library) and treat it as your own reading room. On a recent visit to the shop for a reading, I sat, antisocially, in the upstairs room, where the speakers’ voices are piped in via the sound system. My mind wandering from the reading, I made a catalog of the books on the wall next to me. Here they are:
The Pig in the Barber Shop
The Bishop’s Jaegers
I Capture the Castle
Topper Takes a Trip
Rain in the Doorway
The Stray Lamb
Peregrine Pickle (volume 1)
The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves
The Conscience of the Rich
The Mandelbaum Gate
These Lovers Fled Away
This list, for me, testifies to George Whitman’s most salient qualities: he was a generous and eccentric hoarder. Judging from the contents of the library, no books are turned away (expect, perhaps, for books about the shop, of which I can think of at least one that was banned when it first came out). George’s Shakespeare and Company goes beyond the standards of a “good bookshop,” the defining aspects of which, for me, include being well-curated, able to surprise me with the right book at the right moment; reliable, with a solid backlist; and not outrageously expensive. George’s vision for Shakespeare and Company was to make all of this readily available in his "rag and bone shop of the heart." But because of his particular genius, he created a space that was so much more than just a shop: it was an experience. Many people today are quoting the lines that are prominently displayed in the shop: “Be not inhospitable to strangers, for they may be angels in disguise.” A self-proclaimed “tramp,” George Whitman welcomed all those who tramped through his doorway. He presided over a community, and we are sad to see him go.
And what has gone with him is another connection to our literary heritage. It is not through nostalgia or sentimentality that I say that I sometimes have a difficult time moving forward, leaving people trapped in the fabric of the past. This is as much an intellectual difficulty as a personal one. George is said to have met Sylvia Beach after the war, to procure her blessing on borrowing the name of her shop, and is even said to have taken some of her stock with him to the new shop. (I have never really tried to verify this. NB: I have been told in the comments that apparently George was too shy to actually ask for permission to use the name, in case Sylvia Beach said no. And then Jeanette Winterson claims that Sylvia Beach came to the shop with Lawrence Durrell in 1958 and formally bequeathed George the name. Who knows what's true? George would often embellish for effect.) By virtue of having met Beach, and Anais Nin, and Henry Miller, and many others, he symbolized a link with this storied past, when even if the plumbing was sketchy, the exchange rate was favorable, you couldn’t cross the Boulevard Montparnasse without tripping over a Russian painter, and the Left Bank was cheap enough for artists. It was meaningful to have, upstairs at Shakespeare and Company, the living link to that period. The literary modernist era is said to have ended in 1941, with the deaths of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. But in fact, it ends today, with the passing of George Whitman. I'm sure I speak for all of us when I wish Sylvia and David and everyone at the shop my deepest sympathies.