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An Appreciation: The Last Chapter of a Bibliophile’s Life

Famed Parisian bookseller and BU alum George Whitman dies

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George Whitman, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Paris, France

George Whitman reads outside his Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in 2007. Photos by Jim Donnelly and Ard van der Leeuw

He sold books for a living, but George Whitman was a character to match any created by the most imaginative fiction writer: “undernourished, bearded, a saint among his books, lending them, housing penniless friends upstairs” (Anaïs Nin), “an odd blend of disheveled eccentricity and prodigal generosity…a small, withered man with tiny, birdlike eyes” (The Telegraph of London), “a bohemian and a socialist who trusted humanity” (author Charles Glass), and “a bum all my life” (self-description).

Whitman (COM’35, SMG’35), who died at 98 shortly before Christmas, founded Shakespeare and Company, a harbor for any writer from expatriate celebrities to drug-addled wannabes, in 1951. Bracketed by the Seine and Notre-Dame, the store, named after the French bookshop that was the Jazz Age haunt of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, attracted its own literary glitterati for readings and book signings, among them Nin, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg.

Frugal as a caveman, Whitman abjured telephones, security cameras, and credit cards unless they were used as doorlock picks, The Telegraph reported, adding that the native New Jerseyan patiently endured the “regular occurrence” of having his cash box vanish. But he saw his business as more than a business, calling it “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop.”

“The location was a major source of energy and comfort for American writers,” says James Siemon, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English. One patron of Whitman’s who became his pal was the Beat poet and San Francisco bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Writing on his own shop’s website following Whitman’s death, Ferlinghetti bid adieu to “my oldest friend in the world, gone over the hill!” adding that “he’ll live forever in thousands of people whose lives he directly affected—all those who passed through the open-hearted life of his bookstore…”

“I like to think of myself as a lamplighter,” akin to the medieval monks whose lights at dusk guided weary travelers, Whitman told Bostonia a decade ago. After majoring in journalism at BU, he said, he embarked on a literal walk around the world that ended in Panama when he was blocked by jungle terrain. But along the way, he told the magazine, he met both poor people and the proverbial kindness of strangers, leading him to offer a similar refuge in his Paris bookshop. Indeed, he hung a sign there with a quote from William Butler Yeats: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”

George Whitman, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Paris, France

A former World War II Army medic, Whitman opened his shop after studying French civilization at the Sorbonne, seeding his shelves with books he’d bought with his G.I. Bill benefits. “The bookshop was open-door to anybody coming through Paris [who] needed a place to sleep,” author Glass told National Public Radio. “George used to leave the door unlocked. He trusted everyone. The arrangement was that if they can work an hour a day for him, they can have a place to sleep,” either in beds parked around the bookshelves or in more comfortable digs upstairs. Whitman estimated that 50,000 folks bedded down in the shop over the years.

His daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, who will continue to run the store, told the New York Times that her father had many romances and was married to her mother only briefly. It makes sense for a man whose true love was the shop from which he was inseparable. Fittingly, after almost a century of life, he died in the apartment he kept over the store.

4 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

4 Comments on An Appreciation: The Last Chapter of a Bibliophile’s Life

  • Shanadeen Begay on 01.09.2012 at 11:05 am

    A beautifully lived life.

  • Abram on 01.09.2012 at 12:11 pm

    After my pre-college continental wanderings, I arrived back in Paris with scarcely enough cash for a bed and was roaming the streets when I saw George’s sign on a chalkboard hanging from the awning of that thin old abbey he had stuffed with books. I saw the lamp and was drawn in before I knew it was an impromptu hostel.
    He had a bed for me, without a fee — Hemingway’s bed. I met the most amazing collection of people I have encountered to this day: peripatetic beats fresh back from Morocco, jack Mormons geniuses, even a girl who stopped clocks. But George’s generosity holding court in his apartment, serving pancakes, was the most amazing of all.
    I went back to see George by this time he had made all the travel books. Friends and I helped clean the old monk cells in a basement that seemed to breed paperbacks. The place was at once so open and so full of mystery, and literary history.
    I wrote the biography he requested and hope one day to return, meet his daughter, and flesh it out. Salut George Whitman — yet another reason to be proud of BU.

  • Howard on 01.13.2012 at 11:31 pm

    I was on of the 50,000. I’d just completed a year abroad and a student tour of Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, returned to Paris with $25 in my pocket. Since it was 1972 I felt rich enough to lend $10 to someone who really needed it. I did not know that I would have to wait in Paris for 10 days before more money arrived. My hotel cost $1 a night, and after a couple of days I wandered in to the Shakespeare bookshop. There was a Canadian there staining bookshelves with strong tea. He told me that he was staying there in excange for his work. Could I stay too? Ask George. Yes, I had to read one book daily and sell books in the morning for an hour a day. I slept downstairs among the stacks and met some amazing people that week.

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