A moveable commune

Photos: Charukesi Ramadurai

Photos: Charukesi Ramadurai  

Shakespeare and Company is a bookstore in Paris where one feels like being in one’s own apartment, just exactly how founder George Whitman wanted it to be, says Charukesi Ramadurai.

George Whitman liked to call himself the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter. His windmills were the faceless bookstore chains and one-size-fits-all websites that threatened the existence of a bookshop like his, and even the famous bouquinistes (sellers of used and rare books) with their green boxes across the Seine.

Sylvia Whitman, his daughter and present owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop says, “He would also say that his biography had already been written in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot . I truly think he imagined he was living in a novel himself... he was certainly more eccentric than any character I’ve read in books.”

I know it is fashionable to call it “the end of an era” when someone famous or important dies but in George Whitman’s case, it was definitely so. With him went an age where people loved to read and in his case, lived to read (he once said that he was in the book business since it was the business of life). Sylvia Whitman has been shouldering his legacy since her return from the UK over 10 years ago. “It has been very difficult adjusting to life at the bookshop without this eccentric, witty, wild character at the centre of it... I am still trying to find my way in,” she admits candidly.

George Whitman, 98 when he died last December, had managed the bookshop for close to 60 years. He was the patron saint of the struggling writer in Paris, having provided a bed for 50,000 people in that time. He called them the tumbleweeds, giving them a place to stay once he approved of their initial manuscript. In exchange for this, they were expected to work in the shop for two hours, read and write everyday. And I am sure that the tumbleweeds slacking off must have withered under the baleful eyes of the Notre Dame gargoyles just around the corner.

Even today, the dark room on the first floor has people sitting by the sunlit window all day, browsing and reading even as the Seine flows in front of them. Muffled traffic noises and snatched bits of conversation filter in but this space has a quiet charm of its own. It is a small room and it is difficult to imagine this turning into a sleeping area at night. But David Delannet, co-manager of the shop and Sylvia Whitman’s fiancé, relates her childhood memories of stumbling over sleeping people tightly packed in that room, which continues to host writers and artists.

“Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” reads the entry to the room, but from all accounts, Whitman’s generosity was never in anticipation of finding the odd angel who would sprinkle blessings on his shop. He was also known to describe it as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.” Delannet says, “George was serious about this; he wanted his bookstore to feel like one’s own apartment — anybody can come and read all day long in the first floor library and never get kicked out.” Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian journalist who wrote about his stay there in his book Time Was Soft There , says, “The young people I met at Shakespeare and Company were infected by George’s mad, romantic view of the world and they left the bookstore with the passion to do incredible things. And the older people I met there were reinvigorated by it all, ready to go forth and face the world again.”

And apart from his eccentricity, Whitman was also known to have a singular detachment from all things material. Sylvia Whitman remembers this fondly. “People come in daily and share (usually funny) stories about him: most frequently, that he would ask a customer (a stranger) to manage the shop while he went out to do an errand and would often come back after four hours or even a week.”

Next to a wishing well in the middle of the shop is his commandment “Give what you can, take what you need.”

When I visited the shop last spring, I could not summon the courage to ask to meet him — I was far too much in awe. Besides, I thought, why would a man who had been friends with Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett want to meet an unknown journalist from India? Perhaps I should have tried, given what Sylvia Whitman says: “When he retired to his apartment above the bookshop and found it physically difficult to come down to the shop, I and other visitors would spend time with him daily, recounting what was happening in his bookshop like who was falling in love with each other, what new books had arrived, what incredible private library we had just acquired and filling the shop with. He absolutely loved to hear every detail as the bookshop was his entire life and being.”

Whitman touched people’s lives in more ways than he knew. For Mercer, it was the relationships: “I would never have met people like this without the bookstore because in modern life, with its furious pace, there isn’t enough time to sit and talk with idle poets and eccentric cyclists. But my six months at the bookstore gave me that time and as a result I have some of the richest friendships possible.”

Shakespeare and Company is still a quirky shop, tiny rooms with books stacked to the ceiling, from well-thumbed classics to recent tomes on Twitter. People walk in and out all day, some come to read, some just to browse and others to gawk and in their own ways, pay their respects. As I picked up a rare biography of P.G. Wodehouse for my husband, the man next to me smiled and started chatting about his favourites. It is that kind of place — strangers feel perfectly at ease breaking into your conversations. As Mercer admits, “I think the most remarkable thing about my time at the bookstore was that in my previous life, I didn’t even have enough imagination to believe such a place like Shakespeare and Company could exist.”

The bookshop that stands now is the second avatar of Shakespeare and Company, the original opened by Sylvia Beach (after whom his daughter is named) in 1919. She was forced to shut shop during World War II and it was only in 1951 that Whitman bought it, with a modest inheritance of $500. His shop was initially called Le Mistral, after a girlfriend, some say (lady killer, he). Hemingway has written about Beach’s shop in The Moveable Feast : “On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place.” Nothing has changed in the revised edition of the shop.

And Mercer writes in his book, “In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes… That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. Hope is a most beautiful drug.”

There have been some changes in the shop in the last few years, for instance credit cards, security cameras and a better website. Delannet calls it changing and preserving at the same time, “conscious of the magic the shop has accumulated, and wanting to enhance that magic more than anything.” He adds, “After his death, we decide to convert his apartment into a meeting place for publishers, authors and residents, as well as a writers’ room. George would have approved.”

Mercer seconds this comment; “Sylvia has created a different vision of the bookstore. She has founded a literary festival, she publishes a literary magazine, and has created a respected reading series. All this is brilliant. It’s a different Shakespeare and Company, but it remains a noble and beautiful bookshop. And hey, there are still crazy wanderers sleeping and writing in the bookstore. They are just a little cleaner and saner than they used to be under George.”

Shakespeare and Company is more than just a bookshop. It is that rare entity that understands the magic of the feel of a book, the smell of old paper, the delight of discovering a gem. It is in equal parts a bookshop, library, sanctuary, rendezvous, and after Whitman’s death, perhaps a museum too. Sylvia Whitman and David Delannet have been working on several new projects, including a Shakespeare and Company Bookshop Farm outside Paris for workshops for writers and tumbleweeds from around the world. Delannet says, “As you see, George is gone but his idealism is still with us.”

In the words of Mercer, “Hemingway’s classic line is that Paris was a Moveable Feast, a sensation and delicacy that stayed with you for the rest of your life. If this is true, Shakespeare and Company was a Moveable Commune, giving a sense of solidarity and hope that lives on within you, and courage no matter where you are in life.”

Next to a wishing well in the middle of the shop is his commandment “Give what you can, take what you need.”

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