Smoothing his wispy hair, George Whitman peered out of a second-floor window of his Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris at the customers lingering on the sidewalk below...
Smoothing his wispy hair, George Whitman peered out of a second-floor window of his Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris at the customers lingering on the sidewalk below.
Whitman cleared his throat and spat onto the sidewalk, just missing a woman and her yappy dog. She looked up and smiled. He stared and banged shut the window.
When you’re the 90-year-old proprietor of one of the most beloved English-language bookstores in continental Europe, you can do almost anything you want, including spitting from on high.
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I watched the scene unfold on a spring trip to Paris, and chuckled. Whitman was just as eccentric as I remembered from when I worked, and lived, at Shakespeare & Company as a teenager more than 30 years ago.
It was a rite of passage for me, a summer job in Paris in the Bohemian heart of the city’s Latin Quarter. It was exciting and scary, lonely and fun, as mixed up as I was at 18. Looking back, it’s the type of travel adventure I wish every youth could have, an eye-opening immersion in a different culture.
Little seems to have changed over the decades at Shakespeare & Company, a wonderfully chaotic warren of books in a 17th-century building on the banks of the Seine River.
The bookshop’s half-dozen small, wood-beamed rooms still are crammed with new and antiquarian books, spilling out of the shelves onto the floor, chairs, counters. A multi-national tide of book lovers keeps flowing through. Out the windows is the same splendid view of Notre Dame cathedral, directly across the river. And Whitman, still spry, remains the ruler of this dusty, literary wonderland.
I squeezed past books and browsers to the back of the shop and climbed the narrow, creaking wood stairs to the second floor
Two teenagers sprawled on a bed tucked into a book-lined alcove at the top of the stairs, their heads bent over a book of Allen Ginsberg poems.
I wanted to shoo the teens away. That was my bed when I worked and stayed at Shakespeare & Company (and the grubby bedcover looked like it hadn’t been changed since I was there).
Each night, I’d pick a book from the thousands surrounding me and curl up on the lumpy mattress to read. I’d fall asleep to the swish of traffic, muffled by the walls of books. If I was unlucky, the wild-eyed poet who bedded down in the next room would wake me with howls and yelps during his late-night, experimental poetry readings.
Whitman, whose daughter now helps run the bookshop, still takes wandering youths and struggling writers under his wing. They shelve books, work at the front desk, sleep on the beds scattered throughout the store, and learn about Paris and life. A recent note of gratitude from an Italian mother is tacked on a wall in the bookshop:
“Nearly 10 months ago my son, Geri, ran away from home. Now I know that he’s been sleeping in your library that he loves very much. I wish to thank you for the help you give to anybody.”
I didn’t run away from home. I just was determined to go to Paris and this bookish Mecca, and persuaded my parents to let me go for a summer job.
Falling under the spell
Various incarnations of Shakespeare & Company have been a Paris fixture for almost 90 years. Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate like Whitman, ran the original Shakespeare & Company at other Left Bank locations. It was a haunt for foreign writers, including Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce Joyce’s groundbreaking novel “Ulysses” was published by Beach in 1922 until the chaos of World War II.
Whitman opened his bookstore in 1951. It’s a place, he says, in a pamphlet, “where boys and girls on their way to dig wells in Namibia or plant trees in Malawi or open a bookstore in Hanoi or teach English in Shanghai or fight disease in the hinterlands of the world could be enchanted by the beauty of Paris … ”
I’ve always remembered Whitman and my weeks at the bookshop, but there have been so many years and youths since my time that Whitman didn’t remember me. “Slept here, did you,” he said gruffly. “Coming back?”
I wish. Back then I was footloose, working for the experience, not the very scanty salary, and falling under the city’s spell. Yet I was lonely, too, being so young and far from home.
On my days off from the bookshop, I’d stroll amid the peaceful greenery of the Luxembourg Garden, forlornly watching the happy couples and families play in the park. I’d wander past the world-famous paintings in the Louvre museum, and wonder what Mona Lisa was smiling about. I’d slip into art-house cinemas and watch bleak, intellectual movies that I barely would have understood in English, let alone in French.
Eventually a young Frenchwoman befriended me, inviting me home regularly to family dinners. I found friends among the struggling writers who flocked to the bookshop; we’d roam the city and make a cup of coffee last all afternoon at a table of an outdoor cafe.
Revisiting Shakespeare & Company decades later, I remembered those youthful ups and downs.
I sat on what was my bed, once the poetry-reading teens had left, and read the bookshop’s motto, painted on a facing wall:
“Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”
Good words to live, and travel, by.
Kristin Jackson is an editor and writer with the Travel section. Her Family Matters column runs the third Sunday of each month. 206-464-2271 or email@example.com.