To the "Lost Generation" of American writers who invaded Paris after the First World War Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Co. was always more than just a bookshop. It was a lending library, a meeting place, a floating seminar on modernism and a constant source of encouragement. Probably the most famous part of the Shakespeare and Co. legend was Beach's invaluable service to James Joyce, one of her best customers, by undertaking the publication of "Ulysses" when no established publisher wanted to touch it.
A second invasion of Americans came to Paris after the Second World War, and one of these was George Whitman. Whitman had spent the war years in Greenland, and like many other veterans he came to Paris on the GI Bill, initially to study at the Sorbonne. His plans changed, however, when he received an unexpected inheritance. Whitman used the legacy to open a bookstore in what had been a grocery.
Whitman opened his bookshop on the left bank of the Seine, directly across the river from the flying buttresses behind Notre Dame, and called it "The Mistral" after the cold, dry wind that blows across southern France. In those early days Beach was a frequent customer in the shop. After the war, with her shop closed down by the Nazis, Beach chose not to reopen her famous bookstore on rue de l'Ode'on, and with her blessing Whitman appropriated the name Shakespeare and Co. In his own way he has continued Beach's tradition ever since.
For the past 40 years Shakespeare and Co., at 37 rue de la Bu cherie, has been a kind of Paris pilgrimage for lovers of books, especially American books. Henry Miller once called Whitman's shop "a wonderland of books," and indeed it is a bibliophile's vision of heaven and a fire marshall's nightmare. The shop has grown to fill an adjoining storefront. Books fill the walls from floor to ceiling and create a tight maze of shelving across the floors. More books overflow onto shelves that line the sidewalk outside, where browsers sit at tables reading.
Upstairs over the store is the 50,000-volume Sylvia Beach Memorial Library, reputedly the largest antiquarian collection of English-language books on the continent. The library includes first editions of Paris exiles like Hemingway, Pound and Joyce, as well as vintage issues of the little magazines of the expatriates like Transition and The Paris Review. Except for occasional sales of duplicate copies, no part of the collection is for sale.
Whitman regards himself as an envoy of books and writers. "It's a lot different when you're running a bookstore than when you're running a barroom or a grocery store," he says. "There's a lot more mystique connected with books."
Like Beach, Whitman cultivates Shakespeare and Co.'s mystique as something more than a bookshop. Although he has a reputation among both friends and customers for unpredictability and occasional cantankerousness, his generosity to writers is almost legend.
In six rooms above the shop he runs what he calls the Tumbleweed Hotel for writers in need of a cheap (i.e., free) place to stay in Paris. Former guests include Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alan Sillitoe. The rooms are small but comfortable and like the shop overflow with books; in fact these are the volumes of the Sylvia Beach Memorial Library, and they cover not only shelves and floors but the stove tops and refrigerators of the Tumbleweed Hotel.
The view out the windows of this upper floor is of the Seine, and across the river is Notre Dame and all the windows of Paris -- what writer with an ounce of romance wouldn't give his teeth for a view like that? All Whitman asks for these accommodations is perhaps a few hours of work in his shop, and most importantly a short biography and a photo from each visitor before leaving. Whitman estimates that since he opened Shakespeare and Co. he's put up more than 30,000 guests.
Whitman's weekly "tea parties" and readings have acquired the status of tradition. In addition to the unknowns who might be staying upstairs and who could use some promotion to book buyers, better-known writers who have appeared at Shakespeare and Co.'s Monday night readings over the years have included Graham Greene, Richard Wright, Ginsberg, James Baldwin and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Deborah Swackhamer, a writer from San Anselmo, Calif., spent four months as Whitman's guest in 1968 and is now collecting reminiscences from other former residents of the Tumbleweed Hotel for a book about Shakespeare and Co. Swackhamer has been gathering material for the book in large part by word of mouth in the loose network of people who've stayed with Whitman. "There are a lot of people who want to pay tribute to George's hospitality," she says.
"Despite my lack of acumen," Whitman observes of the way he runs his shop, "just the fact that we're in the heart of Paris probably lets the place prosper even with the type of management we have."
It hasn't always been easy. In 1968, for example, Whitman fell behind in his property taxes and was shut down by the French police, who claimed that as a foreigner he needed a special license to run his business. Swackhamer remembers taking a petition around Paris that was presented to Andre' Malraux, then Charles de Gaulle's minister of culture, urging the government to let the shop reopen because of its importance to the city's literary life. In the meantime Whitman got around his closure by reopening the shop as a free university, which it remained until the following year, when the problems with the French authorities were worked out.
"One of the most agreeable ways to be self-employed is running a sort of semi-bankrupt bookstore," says Whitman. "You just put your feet on the desk and read books all day long." Yet despite this obvious desire to portray himself as more interested in reading and talking about books than in retailing them, Whitman in his shop is a study in perpetual motion, ordering several clerks about, running off on urgent errands, in and out of the two stores constantly, apparently unable to sit down for more than a minute. It's hard to picture him with his feet up on a desk.
At 72 Whitman has no intention of slowing down or of making any changes in Shakespeare and Co. He lives on the floor above the Tumbleweed Hotel in a cozy apartment with his wife Felicity, their daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman and the family's dog, Baskerville. The store's official hours are from noon to midnight, but according to Whitman, "It usually opens when I wake up, which tends to be 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning. Sometimes I'll run the place until 2 a.m."
Whitman clearly enjoys the reputation of his shop and relishes his role as proprietor. "People come from all over the world," he says, "and it's almost as though everyone comes in with a letter of introduction. You have common friends -- Hamlet, Raskolnikov, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They're all friends, no matter where in the world you've read them."
Publishers have been after Whitman for years to write his memoirs. He's been working on it, he says, although so far he hasn't made it past the title, "The Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart." He lifted the title from Yeats' poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion." He likes to say that after choosing a title like that "anything I write would be an anticlimax."
Whitman is, however, looking forward to Swackhamer's book on Shakespeare and Co. "She'll get all the scandal," he says. "I'm sure she's going to write a real expose'."