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Memorial: George Whitman, Founder of Paris’ Shakespeare & Company

What can I add to this week’s hundreds of tributes to the legendary proprietor of Paris’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop, George Whitman, including one by the writer, Jeanette Winterson?

Why was she impelled to remember him in print? Because, like so many others, she had stayed at Shakespeare and Company. George Whitman started a tradition of hosting writers, most famously members of the Beat generation, and the bookshop’s ‘Tumbleweed Hotel’ is still a place where literary dreamers can exchange a few hours’ work in the shop for a bed on a bench amongst the books of George’s personal open library on the first floor.

When I came to Shakespeare and Company a couple of years ago, it was a while before I actually met George. Already in his mid-90s, he spent his days in the apartment on the top floor.

He still owned the shop downstairs, now run expertly by his daughter Sylvia and her team, its ‘Tumbleweed Hotel’ principles intact.

When they arrive, Tumbleweeds are required to write a brief biography for the shop’s records. Employed by the shop to create stair murals, I decided I would do this later. Anyway I was here to draw, not write. I wasn’t a Tumbleweed.

Was I?

The next time I stayed I didn’t write it either, but I did spend my time writing. I’d do it on the next visit.

Or the next…

The last time I visited the shop in October 2011 , Paris was cold. George had just suffered a stroke and was in hospital, ‘recovering well’. The writers’ room, with its tiny electric radiator, was warm. Under my window, tourists snapped continually; Tumbleweeds lunched at the little round table by the door; drunks gathered at the fountain; a busker turned up and performed Shakespeare’s most famous speeches in rotation. Later on, the drummers took over outside the cathedral.

I stopped writing to eat at the café across the road. The man at the next table was telling his teenage daughter – her first trip to Paris – about how he’d been to one of George’s famous Sunday teas and heard the bookseller relate how he had set off to walk from North to South America but had been forced to turn back in the impassible Central American jungle. He was like a child, the man said. It was like he didn’t understand why he just couldn’t go as far as he wanted to go.

But after opening Le Mistral in 1951, which became Shakespeare and Company in 1964, the traveler largely stayed put in Paris, dying peacefully last Wednesday in his apartment above the shop, two days after his 98th birthday.

I walked back from the café to the bookshop and got back to work.

I wrote. Notre Dame chimed ‘Three Blind Mice’ on the hour: the light went.

I thought about space: Kilometer Zero in front of Notre Dame; Place René Viviani  next to the shop where the 2010 Shakespeare and Company Literary Festival was held – a free event into which the public could wander. That was the last time I had seen George downstairs; wearing an extravagant paisley jacket, he was carried in triumph through the shop on a sofa held shoulder-high by Tumbleweeds. Continue Reading »

Posted in Arts, Events, Parisian Living | 4 Comments »

Shakespeare & Co Literary Festival: June 18-20 in Paris

This weekend, don’t miss the Shakespeare & Co literary festival, sponsored by one of Paris’ best English-language bookstores. The theme this year is Storytelling and Politics — with a fantastic roster of English-language writers, it’s the perfect occasion to brush up on a little left-bank expat intellectualizing… And here is the poster, created by Hip Paris blogger friend Badaude.

Shakespeare & Co Paris Literary Festival Badaude

Related links:

  • Shakespeare & Co Festival Website
  • Badaude’s blog
  • Vingt Paris has the low-down on the festival as well

Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.

Posted in Arts, Events | 2 Comments »