In memory of George Whitman, legendary bookseller at Shakespeare & Co

In 2001 I visited Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. Yesterday the store’s legendary owner, George Whitman, died in his apartment above the shop. When I heard the news, I couldn’t help but think of what I had written about him after my visit:

The old man was nowhere in sight. I figured that when the clock struck noon he dissolved into a billion dust particles, coating many spines and pages, the star of the Twilight Zone episode that would be named the “Keeper of the Books.”

Here’s the full, perhaps a bit cliche, story about my 2001 visit.

The twin black towers of Notre Dame rang in the eleventh hour. The great brass voice gave life to the monstrous cathedral and called to mind the disfigured creature of fiction for which it would forever be linked. I crossed the street seeking sanctuary from the cold.

“You must be here for the Library?” The thin gray hair of the old man fluttered in the wintry breeze blowing across the Seine as he spoke with a strong English accent. He wore a neat bow tie and a dark gray suit. He unlocked the door to the bookstore with a steady hand.

“Hmmm…uhhh… I wanted to look at some books.”

“I’ll be open in twenty minutes. You can go upstairs until then for the…Library.”

I stepped through the worn wood and glass doors and shuffled between two shelves on wheels that further narrowed the entranceway.

“The stairs to the Library are in the back.” I followed his directions winding in and out of narrow aisles of books. Books bowed the shelves from floor to ceiling. The aisles were too narrow to allow bending over; to reach or browse books on the bottom shelves one would have to lay on their stomach and slither around. The top shelves required a ladder. One’s height determined what shelves were available for viewing. I could view shelves four thru eight without suffering any indignities; if I jumped I could glance at eight and if I slithered those below four.

Panic and claustrophobia began to set in and reddened my cheeks as the staircase eluded me among the chaos of the books. I spun around hoping to catch a glimpse of the stairs- nothing but books. The entire room was swollen with books. One more added and surely something – the floor, the walls – would have to give.

“Over here.” He put his bony hand on my shoulder and led me to a staircase camouflaged in books.

I walked up the flight of stairs to the Library. I took in a deep breath. The place reeked of dusty leather and pressed paper aged to a yellow hue. The smell of knowledge belittled me. I’m sure I was on the edge of some profound thought or revelation when I received two short pokes into the back of my shoulder.

I turned expecting to see the well-dressed clerk, instead, before me a man in pajamas stood barefoot with bed wrangled hair, and a face shaded in stubble. “What are you doing Hhhhhere?” The letter “H,” when pronounced, is a powerful cannon that launches the deadly chemical weapon halitosis. And Bed Head was well armed.

“Hmm…uhh…I’m looking at books.” I was surrounded by billions of words and I found myself unable to find any. “Uhh…the man down stairs…”

“There are still people waking up,” he said, cutting me off. “Shut the gate at the bottom of the stairs on your way out.” His demeanor was every bit as sharp and rotten as his breath.

Unwittingly I had stumbled upon a gem of literary history. In the early twenties a young Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce frequented the original Shakespeare and Company. The store was shutdown during WWI, when Paris fell to the Germans, after the shop owner, Sylvia Beach, refused to sell to a German officer. It was Hemingway in 1944, at the front lines of the Allied forces that remembered the bookstore and officially freed it from German control.

In the fifties George Whitman, my bow tie wearing friend, opened up the Shakespeare and Company from which I had been exiled. Completely unaffiliated with the original store, Whitman’s store soon took on the same charm as Beach’s. On the second floor of the shop he placed several beds, which aspiring writers could stay if they read a book a day, and put in a hour of work at the shop. George estimates that over 10,000 travelers have come to spend at least one night amid the dusty shelves, most notably Allen Ginsberg and Henry Miller.

I returned an hour later to find a completely different cast of characters haunting the shop. The old man was nowhere in sight. I figured that when the clock struck noon he dissolved into a billion dust particles, coating many spines and pages, the star of the Twilight Zone episode that would be named the “Keeper of the Books.”

I browsed for an hour and I was about to settle for Harry Potter when Victor Hugo grabbed my attention. On the cover of Notre-Dame of Paris was the cathedral and out the window of the bookstore was the same cathedral; it was surreal.

A young man reclined on a wooden desk chair. His long curly brown hair framed his smooth face. He was sporting a pair of glasses that must have increased his IQ by at least thirty points. He spoke with an intelligent English accent to a smartly dressed girl. She handed him a gift wrapped in newspaper. It was a bicycle pump. They laughed and used big words.

I waited patiently, unnoticed, to purchase my book. In a lull in the conversation I cleared my throat.

“Is that it for hhhuuueee?” I nodded and handed him the book. The glasses and the shave were new, but I recognized the breath. He looked at the title, shot a glance over to his friend, and chuckled to himself about my unoriginal purchase.

In the midst of stone-throwing snooty scholars and torch-carrying tormented writers I could have stayed, feigned a more handsome intellect by saying little and brooding a lot, but I felt intellectually ugly and unrefined in their company. There was no sanctuary for me among the books.

As I walked along the cold streets of Paris I felt a strong urge to stick my tongue on something metal, like any good outcast or buffoon. In the distance the Eiffel tower pierced the gray sky.

 
2 comments
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