On the fashionable Left Bank, there is an unusual hotel snuggled among the restaurants on the Rue de la Boucherie. It has no front desk nor concierge. There are no fresh flowers on the nightstands, and the three bedrooms available are a little musty. Clean sheets are at a premium. Private baths are out of the question.
But if you like to read and write, the ambience can't be beat: 40,000 books spread over three floors, numerous typewriters and a view of Notre Dame.
Nor can you beat the price. George Whitman, who owns Shakespeare and Company--as well as the bedrooms above the English-language bookstore--will not let his guests pay for their beds with cash. They have to pay with words.
He demands that each of them read one book a day and write an autobiography. Whitman has collected thousands of such works. He stores them in his bathtub.
Two of the rooms are available to not-yet-proven writers. But the "writer's room," with its green velvet walls and bedspread, is reserved for published authors. In the old days of the 1960s, Whitman will tell you, Laurence Durrell ("The Alexandria Quartet"), Allen Ginsberg ("Howl"), Robert Stone ("Dog Soldiers"), Anai s Nin ("Delta of Venus") and Langston Hughes ("The Big Sea") would hole up on top of his bookstore and spend days just reading and writing.
"James Jones "From Here to Eternity" --he lived in my library," says Whitman, a crusty man in a dusty gray suit and pink socks.
That was, of course, long after the even older days of the 1920s--when Paris belonged to Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce--and Shakespeare and Company belonged to Sylvia Beach. It was not unusual then to see F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and expatriate writers of the "Lost Generation" striding up the artsy Boulevard St. Germain toward her bookstore and lending library.
During that romantic decade Shakespeare and Company became a Paris landmark. Beach, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister from Princeton, N.J., opened her small store with a loan from her mother in 1919. She became the mother-confessor to American writers who chose to work in Paris after World War I.
Once, Beach encouraged Stein and Hemingway to patch a long-standing feud. And in 1921, Shakespeare and Company published Joyce's "Ulysses"--a book no other house would touch.
But by World War II, when the Germans occupied France, most of the American writers had gone home. In 1942, Beach refused to sell a German soldier a copy of "Finnegans Wake," and fearing the Germans would close her shop anyway, she decided to end an era.
It wasn't until 20 years later, after Beach's death, that Whitman changed the name of his own Paris bookstore--Le Minstral, a 15-minute walk from Beach's original shop--to Shakespeare and Company in her honor. He knew Beach well, he says, from the '50s when she frequented his shop. He named his only daughter Sylvia. She's 2. Whitman, an eccentric, wiry man who looks about 70, says he isn't sure of his age.
Whitman says he allows writers to stay above his shop to encourage good writing. He thinks good writers are a dying breed.
One recent August day, two Hungarian students traveling through France moved into Whitman's place for a week. They were asked to vacuum for their bed. But a poet from Brooklyn, looking for material and true love in Paris, was allowed to use the writer's room. No vacuuming for him.
"I heard about the place from a jazz poet in New York," said Steve Dalachinsky. "It's been great. Just yesterday I sat over by Notre Dame and wrote a poem."
It went like this: Beside the Seine, 2 sparrows, tugging on a piece of bread.
Philip Taylor, a freckle-faced 20-year-old from Australia who showed up for a night and stayed three weeks, isn't there to create. Just read. "I stay up all night reading his philosophy books," says Taylor.
"All I do is give the writers a room and a typewriter,"says Whitman. "I think people are influenced more than anything else by books. They have the greatest affect on humanity . . . Karl Marx said, 'Live for humanity,' and I always liked that."
Meanwhile, downstairs in the bookstore, with its tile floors and rafters, throngs of American and British customers file in all day long.
The store carries a vast selection of fiction, philosophy and various textbooks. Sometimes visitors buy, but mostly they find a wall or a bench and settle in for a long read.
Whitman strolls in about noon and lingers until mid-afternoon. If he gets tired, he might recruit a customer to run the cash box or mark books with the Shakespeare and Company rubber stamp. Books so stamped thereby become souvenirs of Paris. Whitman spends his evenings in the private library of his upstairs apartment and reads long into the morning.
"Lately," says Whitman, who thinks he just might be related to the poet, "I have become fascinated with the history of this house and I found out that it was a monastery in the 1600s . . . In those days, one brother, the fre re lampier, would be responsible for lighting the lamp at twilight. I'd like to think of myself as the last of the fre re lampiers--lighting the lamp and creating a utopia for all book lovers."