George Whitman, Shakespeare & Co., and what I learned from living in Paris

December 29, 2011

George Whitman died recently at the ripe old age of 98.   He took over the famous Left Bank bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., after the original owner, Sylvia Beach, left it at the onset of World War II. She ran it as a publishing company that famously published James Joyce’s revolutionary novel Ulysses in 1922. The book was banned in the U.S., no American publisher would publish it.  It was considered obscene.  But what is considered obscene in America is often considered great literature or art in Paris.  George Whitman took over the book store part after she left and ran it pretty much until he was in his 90s and infirm; his daughter then took over.

My three years in Paris in the 1970s taught me much more than I ever learned in college. When in Paris you discover Arab and African culture. The powerful music emanating from these regions, and the art that moved Picasso, Debussy, and Brancusi to create fabulous new works. I heard a lot of African Arabic music that was simply out of reach in LA. I also learned about the great multi-ethnic food culture of the City of Lights, both 3 star and three-franc, as well as the joys of walking in a city designed for the pedestrian instead of the car. And plenty of good slang.

You learn from living abroad. You come to understand how other people live and think. Cultural differences become less important. I was concerned, when George Bush was elected in 1998, that he’d never travelled outside the U.S. This lack of understanding certainly colored his presidency after September 11th, 2001, and his self-righteous, chauvinistic crusader behavior reflected this ignorance.

But back to Shakespeare & Co. and George Whitman. I got to know George Whitman while in Paris in 1970 and a student at the Sorbonne.  I had gone to Paris because I spoke French, loved France, nouvelle vague movies as well as Luis Bunuel and Jacques Tati. And Flaubert, Gide, Balzac, Stendhal, Voltaire, ad infinitum.  I loved that great photo of Jean Paul Belmondo smoking the Gaulois. And then there was the ultimate sex kitten, Brigitte Bardot. But, truth be told, I was also trying to delay draft induction into the army and be sent to Vietnam.

I liked the store for several reasons.  It was well-heated, had books everywhere, both in English and French. Books were much cheaper there than at the French bookstores (books are $$$ in France).  There were lots of comfy chairs to peruse what you found there, and no obligation to buy.  I didn’t go there to socialize, though many people did.  George to his credit also took in the homeless, hungry, and lonely crowd.  Shakespeare & Co. was a true literary and social oasis.

Obits have written about George Whitman’s lifelong commitment to running the store. For my part, I found him cantankerous, crotchety, and bilious.  I must have told him that I was living there partly because I had a small trust fund that my brother, sister and I got when we turned 21.  I must have told George about this, because he began pestering me every time I came in to buy the store from him.  It was the last thing I wanted at the time—I was only 23–but he just kept asking, but it seemed to me at the time that he, at 57, had had enough of it and wanted to unload the store.

I sometimes visited French libraries—don’t ask me why bookstores are called libraries in France……bibliothèque is the word for library—-but found the beautifully-bound paperbacks very expensive and beyond my budget.  One day, emerging from the Presses Universitaires near the Sorbonne, I was arrested by the C.R.S.–the French riot police–and thrown in jail.  There was a student demonstration at the Pantheon that I didn’t even know about.  But my carte de sejour said I was a Sorbonne student and that was enough.  I have a police record (dossier) there…I found this out when I was applying for a work permit after returning and getting a teaching job at the École Universelle a few years later.   I was awarded a knighthood by the French government a few years ago for helping promote Francophone music, and have a nice green medal framed in my office.  Now if I could only get my police record to proudly frame and put next to it. Wonder if there is a freedom of information act in France?

So George Whitman is gone, but Shakespeare & Co. is there for future generations of people, bibliophiles or not, to discover.  It’s there where it’s always been, on the Left Bank close to Notre Dame, Cluny, the Sorbonne., and all the wonders of Paris’ Latin Quarter.

Tom Schnabel, M.A.
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Host of music program KCRW 89.9 FM Sundays noon-2 p.m.
Blogs for KCRW (rhythm planet / KCRW)
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons

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1 Comment

Filed under Arts, Books

One response to “George Whitman, Shakespeare & Co., and what I learned from living in Paris

  1. Such a great blog post! I stumbled onto this article when I was looking for a topic for my own blog – Legendary Book Stores. I was shocked to find out that Whitman died in December, 2011 but in reading this blog I am humbled and relieved to have read about your experiences within his company and what sounds like a great life in France.
    Congrats on the arrest from the riot police! Sounds like a great story!

    The Wanderfull Traveler

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