December 19, 2011
George Whitman and the Magic of Shakespeare and Co.
George Whitman of the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris passed away on December 14, two days after his 98th birthday. In 2003, I spent the summer at “the shop” as he called it and eventually moved in to his upstairs apartment briefly as one in a long lineage of housemothers he invited to stay with him above the shop.
I went there to write. I had just finished my junior year of college and was trying to figure out what to do with my last summer before entering adulthood. Quite a few of my friends had fancy internships with big banks or prestigious government offices to help them get snazzy jobs after graduation. I had no idea what I was going to do and it seemed like all of the sudden out of nowhere I had to make summer plans that were life determinative – if I wanted to go into politics I should take an internship getting coffee and answering phones in D.C., if I wanted to work in Hollywood I should be someone’s bitch in LA, or if I wanted to go to law school I should take an LSAT class. I couldn’t bear the thought of any of my options. So instead, I decided to do precisely what I always wanted: become a bohemian writer in Paris amongst other artists and tolerate the insufferability of modern life with other kindred spirits while we watched Jean-Luc Godard films, recited poetry and fell in love to release ourselves from the drudgery of pervasive banality.
There was only one problem. I was just a typical upper-middle class white girl from an elite college, just a hair away from being a virgin, with an over-involved Jewish mother who wanted the precise location of my coordinates at least once a day. So I lied. I had heard about Shakespeare and Co. from a friend who had traveled to Paris a year earlier and hung out at this storied bookstore that she said housed cool artsy kids. I had tried to email the store to find out if I could live there for the summer but of course, this was before his daughter Sylvia had returned from London to help her dad run the store, and George probably didn’t even know that his store had a website. But I bought a ticket to Paris for the summer anyway and I just hoped that this benevolent bookseller I had vaguely heard of would take me in.
I told my parents and everyone else I was accepted in to a “writer’s-in-residence” program after submitting my fiction work to this well-established renown writer’s institution. I showed up in Paris alone, with no cell phone, very little money, no laptop, not knowing anyone, clutching a paper with the address of a bookstore. I had no back-up plan. If I couldn’t stay there, I didn’t know where I would live let alone what I would do for the next few months. I got off the Metro station and walked to the store, with butterflies in my stomach. I walked up to the guy at the till, proclaimed that I was a writer and asked if there was room for me to stay at the shop.
As it turned out, George was in London for another week and so although Patrick who was in charge of the shop said there was a bed I could have for now, I was expected to write a biography of myself in the time I had till he returned. Upon his return, he would read our bios and if they were satisfactory, he might allow us to stay. In the meantime, I was introduced to the sundry group of wanderers who spent most of their time reading on the benches in front of the shop. I fell into the most fabulous and dirty group of hipster ex-pat gypsies I could have ever hoped to find. There was Jonathan the fiddler who made his living from busking, Ted, the Australian painter whose portrait of me, in front of the store, now hangs in my home, Vereen, the Indian vegan who taught me how to hop the turnstile to get onto the Metro, Xander, the Brit who spent most of his time lying on the ground next to a girl of the week reading poetry, and Pehter, the Slav, who introduced me to Absinthe by telling me to open my mouth and pouring it straight down my throat. We all shared the responsibilities of opening the store, setting up the book displays, and signed up for shifts to work the till. I had never worked a register before and loved that I was expected to spend most of my shift reading. The first thing I read was A Moveable Feast, naturally. But I was also introduced into the world of Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and Jacques Prévert. Rumors about George were plentiful– people talked of him throwing all his guests out on a whim, of his many relationships with the pretty girls that frequented the shop, the divorce from his much younger ex-wife, and his friendships with the famous writers we all worshipped.
There was a typewriter upstairs which we were encouraged to use and on which I wrote my biography. The day George returned, we all passed in our pieces of paper and waited for him to decide whom he was keeping and whom he was booting out of his shop. He was almost ninety at the time and though he moved slowly, his mind was starkly nimble. He read them all in front of us while we waited, watching his face for the occasional grimace or laugh. Maybe he took a fondness to me because I was the only one to write my bio on his beloved typewriter, maybe he appreciated my academic pedigree, or more likely, he called my name because I was a pretty young girl (although I must admit, it wasn’t hard to be the prettiest girl in a group of really grungy boys. If you were man, it was much harder to get George to like you – you had to be a truly talented writer or at least a true intellectual.) Whatever the reason, he did call my name. All of the sudden, his whole demeanor softened into an almost flirtatious manner as he asked me if I’d enjoyed my stay at his shop so far. You will be the housemother, he told me. You’re moving upstairs. This was the best news I could have imagined.
When you hear that George housed thousands of travelers throughout the many years he ran his shop, you might imagine as I did, a tiny little room in his apartment that he allowed people to crowd into. But, most of us travelers he provided lodging to, stayed literally in the bookstore and never saw his upstairs apartment. The shop had tiny little beds in random corners all throughout. During the day, the beds that someone might call home for months, were converted into unsuspicious book displays. We all shared one closet upstairs that had a combination lock where we could keep our backpacks and where I had a cd player stolen twice. There was no bathroom in the shop. There was a little sink where we could brush our teeth but that was it. There was a public restroom not too far away that cost me one euro for a shower which I didn’t use nearly enough. Learning the bathrooms of the Latin Quarter became some of the most valuable information I learned while in Paris. And no one was given a key to the shop. So you had to be in the bookstore by the time at night when the store was locked up or you would find yourself sleeping in the park – unless of course, you knew how to sneak in through the second story balcony which I eventually did learn by necessity. And so, while we were all grateful for the free lodging, it was an existence that constantly required planning to say the least.
So when George invited me to be housemother, this meant I no longer had to live quite as dingily. I could stay in his apartment above the store which had an actual bathroom. Although, the place was really less an apartment and more just a book storage warehouse with some random furniture and a stove thrown in for good measure. But it was also magical. And not just because sometimes when you pulled a book down and opened it up, money would pour out of the pages – George didn’t like banks. It was magical because it was the fairytale of every angsty suburban teenage girl come to life – a place filled with weighty ideas and prolific thinkers in the most beautiful part of Paris. And George was telling me I belonged there. George showed me his private typewriter and demanded pages from me. Everyday, he wanted to know what I was reading and why I wasn’t finished with that book yet. Sundays, the housemother made pancakes and if we were lucky a famous writer or two would drop by and share a manuscript.
And though I went there to write, I realize now that I really was just there to live. I took up a Gauloises Blondes cigarette habit and drank red wine for breakfast. I spent two euros a day on food – usually a cheese sandwich which to be precise was a sliced baguette with butter and brie smeared on it. Once a week or so I would sight see, making fun of the American students on study abroad programs. I drank too much. Way too much. I wasn’t yet of legal drinking age in the states, so buying wine at the store became a perfectible pastime for me. One time, I went with my gypsy gang to the Pompidou center early in the morning to get inspired. Naturally, we drank heavily on the walk over. I eventually slipped away from my friends and sat down on the couch at a rather disturbing video art installation. I woke up five hours later when a guard was poking me, yelling at me in French that the museum was now closed. My friend Nikolai and I actually snuck into the American cemetery at Normandy because we got there so late on a Friday it was already closed. Being fearless and young, we scaled the brick wall and walked through the grounds understanding that there was literally not another living soul for miles.
Everyday, I woke up, intending to work on my novel. The summer was passing quickly and though sometimes I would eek out a few pages on George’s typewriter on his kitchen table with the Paris sunlight streaming in over the Seine and onto my words, they never amounted to much. I was twenty years old, my senses were on overload and I didn’t have the will power to keep myself upstairs in the apartment alone while my newfound vagabond friends were outside drinking, laughing, and propounding the philosophies of young idealist thinkers who came to Paris for compatriotism. Mainly, I drank and ate and smoked and loved. In fact, I thought I loved twice. Really, I just loved my life there. I lived for the first time on my own terms in a world I made for myself. I had shed the training wheels of my upbringing – I wasn’t relying on my parent’s money, or my grades, or my university, or my connections, or the world I came from. I created an identity for myself based on a blank slate and it was more freeing than any other single experience of my life. I had never felt more like the real version of myself. And the best part about it was George Whitman approved. As the summer passed, I fantasized more and more about not returning to college but staying on as housemother indefinitely. I remember a heart wrenching conversation over the phone with my mother where I was crying telling her I was in love and never wanted to leave Paris.
But when the day came to go back for my last year of college, I packed up my things to head home. Maybe I knew I wasn’t in love. Maybe I knew I was never going to get enough writing done in a place where I became obsessed with living. I dreaded telling George, I was leaving. I was scared that the paucity of novel pages on his desk combined with my relinquishment of the title of housemother was going to disappoint him. But when he saw my packed bag, he just smiled. He wasn’t surprised I had decided not to stay. I guess after fifty years of housing and saying goodbye to peripatetic writers he understood my path better then I did. I knew you were gonna leave, he said. Keep sending me pages, he practically barked on my way out. I am greatly saddened, that in literally the same month that I have finished my first book, George has passed and he will never read it. But I am also at peace with it. I never would have been able to write much at all without my time with him. And the point of George and his store and even his own story was not to provide great writing for his own reading pleasure. But rather to ensure that there would always be a place for great writing and writers. He believed books and writing were the lifeblood of human existence and I am heartened to know that in some small way, I continue to perpetuate this conviction by continuing to write. Because when George told me to send him pages, it was not so he could read them, but rather to ensure that I continue to write them. And so George, as the thousands of ragged souls around the world unite to say goodbye and pay homage to you, I join them with my own promise, to continue sending you pages…