George Whitman: Proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop

 

At George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company bookshop a sign above a door quotes two lines from Yeats: "Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise". Whitman certainly lived by those words, in accommodating some 50,000 strangers over the last 60 years. These were the aspiring writers who stayed at this bookstore, free lending library and crash pad. Would-be writers can rest overnight here on condition that they read at least one book a day and help out in the shop for an hour or so. To its visitors, the residents of Paris and tourists alike, Shakespeare and Company remains a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of literature in the English language.

Whitman was born in 1913 in East Orange, New Jersey and grew up in Salem, Massachusetts. He would later claim as his grandfather the writer Walt Whitman, a case of geneaological poetic licence. Whitman enrolled at Harvard in 1939 and was called up for army service in 1941, taking a role as a medic, based in Europe. On his return to America he established his first bookstore, in Taunton, south of Boston, while still doing night duty for the army.

In 1948, thanks to the GI Bill, which allowed returning soldiers to continue their education, he travelled to Paris and studied French culture at the Sorbonne. Whitman created his bookshop, Le Mistral, in a 17th century building on the Rue de la Bûcherie, close to Notre Dame, in 1951. This in turn inspired Whitman's good friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to open his own City Lights bookstore in San Francisco two years later. When Ferlinghetti and other poets of the Beat generation, including Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, visited Paris, Whitman's shop became their meeting place.

In 1964 Whitman changed the name of Le Mistral to Shakespeare andCompany, in honour of the previous Paris bookstore run until 1941 by Sylvia Beach, who had died two years earlier. Beach had, in 1922, famously published Joyce's Ulysses when no other English language publisher would touch it. Whitman himself claims to have been too shy to ask permission for the use of the name from Beach, whom he knew during her lifetime.

Throughout its history Shakespeare and Company has remained that quirky combination of bookstore and lending library, a place where the importance is on the reading rather than simply the purchase of a book. Or, as Whitman put it, this is "a Socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore". Even the telephone and cash-till are only relatively recent additions. The upper part hosts the lending library, a quiet sanctuary where visitors are able to read – and sleep.

Workshops and authors' readings are announced in a regular newsletter. Whitman's last contribution, in this month's edition, reads:"When Walt Whitman said that who touches this book touches man, I feel that he could have been speaking for me. I like you to open my door the way you open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in your imagination. I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel. And the girls who come in here are coming into a novel."

In 2005 Benjamin Sutherl and Gonzague Pichelin directed a documentary of Whitman's life entitled Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man in a nod to Joyce's 1916 work. Shakespeare and Company also features in the film Before Sunset (2004), by Richard Linklater. Whitman received the award of the Officier des Arts et Lettres from the French Minister of Culture for his lifelong contribution to the arts,in 2006.

Whitman's daughter, Sylvia, who took over the day-to-day running of Shakespeare and Company in 2003, said in tribute to him: "After a life entirely dedicated to books, authors and readers, George will be sorely missed by all his loved ones and by bibliophiles around the world who have read, written and stayed in his bookshop... Nicknamed the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter, George will be remembered for his free spirit, his eccentricity and his generosity."

Whitman died in the apartment above his bookstore just after his 98th birthday, following a stroke two months before.

George Whitman, book dealer: born East Orange, New Jersey 12 December 1913; one daughter; died Paris 14 December 2011.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?