George Whitman probably is an unfamiliar name to most Americans, but practically any American who has spent any at all time in Paris has at least wandered through the Shakespeare & Company bookshop, of which Whitman was the owner and proprietor. He was 98, and knew everyone. He had been a bit less mobile the past few years, but you could usually see him sitting around upstairs somewhere, puttering, or just sitting and talking. What an amazing set of memories, which are now no longer with us.
It wasn’t the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop owned by Sylvia Beach, but he opened his and named it in honor of Beach’s–and when his own daughter came along, named her after Sylvia. It was, and still is, an amazing bookshop–wall to ceiling books, literally, mostly English language, about practically everything and anything, nestled in on the Left Bank opposite Notre Dame. Perfect–you couldn’t possibly have improved on it. If they liked you, they would use one of those little embossing stamp things on the title page of whatever you bought, and I have one in my copy of, of course, George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. It must be something to create an institution and then to live long enough to see it become one, as much a part of Paris today as the Seine it sits next to. A remarkable bookman and person, whose legacy appears set for a pretty sturdy survival.
The next time you’re in Paris, stop in and say a brief and silent prayer for books, the people who write and publish them, and the people who bring them to us, sometimes in the most improbable ways.