Friday, December 16, 2011
BY KATHLEEN SPIVACK
George Whitman of Shakespeare and Company, Paris died Wed. Dec 14, 2011
In 1991 George asked me to write something abut Shakespeare and Co, where I spent many happy months reading and being. I had stayed at Shakespeare and Co in the past as did many other writers. Also helped out at the bookshop. In the old days there was no real register, and no accounting at all. We sat at the front desk amid crowds of curious tourists and book buyers, threw the book purchase money under the desk near our feet, and scrabbled around to make change. He loved sweets, and I often stopped in a Parisian bakery on my way over there, to bring him something tempting. There were all kinds of treasures to be found at Shakespeare and Company; and priceless first editions of Joyce, Henry Miller and others.
I spent a lot of time at Shakespeare and Company, it reminded me of the dusty Grolier Poetry Bookshop in the old Gordon Cairnie Days. Same type of eccentric crusty old guy running the show. I stayed at George’s bookshop at intervals during the 'late 60's, and '70's ,'80's when in Paris, before I got a full time job there. George gave us space to live and write, cooked pancake breakfasts, dinners, served tea, set up a reading library for us, let us read his precious books, and in every way adopted his stray writers. He served tea every Sunday afternoon, drying the few chipped dishes with pieces of torn newspaper, and afterward, saving them for use again as toilet paper. It was really exotic! Yu had to cross several bridges to take a public shower, and the great grandchildren of the original bugs coexisted happily with the writers and the overstuffed sofas. But I was so lucky to put my imprint where so many others had put theirs, as they tried to write in George’s rooms. I really felt adopted for life by dear George and was often enlisted to help him with some complicated” save-the-store scheme.” George was wonderful and I loved him, and many other writers will agree. I also read there a lot, participating in benefits for the store and all the rest. The list of writers who came to Shakespeare is as distinguished as the list of American pets who frequented the Grolier.
We all have our "George-Stories." You will see many in the coming days, for writers who now staff newspapers, among others, all have their own versions of their coming-of-age-as a-writer, thanks to George. His beloved daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman took over the store in most recent years. She immediately won the trust and respect of the entire anglophone literary community. George barked and grumbled as he initiated her into the ways of the store. Sylvia just laughed. And learned. What a wonderful young woman! And a wonderful daughter! Always, George was so proud of her!
When I wrote the poem for George’s magazine "Tumbleweed Hotel” at George's request, Sylvia was younger and still living in England. George practically held the pen in my hand and dictated the words as I wrote-- he wanted me to put the name of his beloved daughter in every stanza!
We all know that George will live on forever at Shakespeare-- his spirit, but also in Sylvia who is such a wonderful daughter, person, bookseller, friend.
I wrote a lot celebrating George and the bookstore over the years: touchstones. Here's the poem I wrote for him that icy Christmas many years ago.
For George Whitman, Shakespeare & Co. Paris
“Write something for me.” George, exuberant, said.
She could not think of anything to say.
There was so much, too very much to say.
She thought of soft books waiting to be read:
how sweet to turn those pages; just to be
at one with work. She saw the kids
who flocked to Paris, sought to write—and did!
All this was in George’s vision, energy:
Eccentric, generous. How all roads led
to Shakespeare and Company. Always had. She looked
across the Seine. The vista took
one’s breath away: the bookshop; Paris spread
before her; conversation, Notre Dame…
To read, to write, this was a writer’s dream.
All this, and more: the writer’s rooms, the cat.
the company, including lively Sylvia, she praised…
The tea was poured, the cookies passed. Oh happy days
with Sylvia and George at Shakespeare; teacups raised!