George Whitman RIP

The New York Times reports that George Whitman had died yesterday, aged 98.

I arrived in Paris, just shy of my 18th birthday – end of October 1994, it must have been. I came on the train from Italy but there was a strike in Paris so I ended up alighting from a bus at the train station. I had almost no money but I had a newspaper clipping I’d kept for the past few months of travelling, and it described a bookshop in Paris called Shakespeare & Company where, it said, people who liked books could stay.

I followed the Seine, on foot, to Notre Dame. The shop was opposite, on the left bank. I went into the shop, which looked like a bookshop. I didn’t see any beds. I didn’t quite know what to say, or do. “Is George here?” I asked the young guy behind the counter. “No,” he said. “He’ll be in later.”

I stood for a while longer until the guy took pity on me. “You’re looking for a place to stay?” he said.

“Yes!”

He smiled.

*

I stayed 3 weeks at Shakespeare & Company. My bed was on the second – the library – floor. Sometimes I overslept and woke up to customers browsing books around me. Apart from me there was a Korean writer, a drunk British poet, an American model and others.

In exchange for staying at the shop we had to do an hour of work or so a day for George. On Sundays there were surreal tea parties filled with Parisians, ex-pats and pseudo-intellectuals. We got to read as many books as we liked. We drank a lot of cheap red wine.

I can’t say George liked me a great deal. He was abrupt and sometimes dictatorial but when he smiled it transformed his face. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. He was a mensch. He was 81 then, and had a 14 year old daughter (who now runs the shop) in America. It was November by then and snowing in Paris. George gave me an old suit jacket to wear, which I carried around with me for another two months. I left after three weeks, getting on a bus to Amsterdam.

Since then I’ve been back to Shakespeare and Co. whenever I was in Paris. I saw George, years later, but wasn’t sure I should even say hello. The shop’s still there. I assume people still stay there when they need to. Fittingly, when I left, I took a book of poems with me. Diane Wakoski’s The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, which I still have. I still love her “The Ten-Dollar Cab Ride”.

Rest in peace, George.

 

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