Add George Whitman, the former proprietor of the 60-year-old Parisian bookstore and artist sanctuary Shakespeare and Co., to the list of major cultural figures lost this week. He was 98 years old.
As a departure from the sometimes overwrought eulogizing that has peppered the press after the recent deaths of author Christopher Hitchens and former Czechoslovakia President Vaclav Havel, Brooklyn writer Alexander Nazaryan extends a begrudging honor to Whitman and his shop with a disappointment that pines for a bygone era of literary greatness and distrusts the pretensions of contemporary would-be’s. —ARK
New York Daily News:
In the summer of 2001, I spent two miserable weeks in Paris, having gone there to find a city – the city of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein – that had long ceased to exist. I spent the majority of that time at Shakespeare and Company, the Left Bank bookstore/hostel/library/museum/bar/hovel whose proprietor, George Whitman, died at 98 on Wednesday.
I hated Shakespeare. I should not have hated it, but I did.
I hated the lack of a bathroom, and how the waiters at La Fourmi Ailée lowered their eyes when you came in, since they knew you were only there to use their toilet. I hated that we slept between shelves, on old wooden doors on which thin blankets had been laid. The blankets were dirty because someone else had slept on them before – any expatriate could stay at George’s store, provided he or she agreed to “work” for him, which usually meant jerking a thumb at tourists looking for A Farewell to Arms.
George didn’t much care who you were or what you were doing in Paris. If you wanted to hang around in the shadows of the Notre Dame, drinking wine with expatriates, reading inscrutable poetry and occasionally sweeping the dusty floors, you could be both his tenant and employee.
A photograph of George Whitman with an unnamed guest sits in the window of City Lights Books in San Francisco.