C.W. Gusewell


In literary Paris, a light goes out

On the left bank of the Seine in Paris, just across the river from the Cathedral of Notre Dame, there’s a unique little store that is as much a shrine as it is a place of commerce.

And anyone with more than a passing interest in that city or in modern English language literature knows at least a rough outline of the history of Shakespeare and Company.

From 1919 to 1941, Sylvia Beach, an expatriate American, operated a book shop and lending library by that same name at a different Paris location.

In 1951, an itinerant young Bostonian, George Whitman, opened his successor establishment under a different name but rechristened it to honor the original Shakespeare and Company and its founder.

Ms. Beach, in her time, had given hospitality and encouragement to many expatriate writers, some of whom – Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound among them – would become literary icons of their generation.

Whitman preserved that tradition, providing to needy passers-through – often aspiring young literati on their way to fame or to obscurity – a place to sleep and occasional small payment for their help among the shelves of books.

He once estimated he’d given temporary lodging to some 50,000 such vagabond dreamers.

One of our daughters took a year’s break from college to return to that glorious city, where, when she and her sister were much younger, we’d lived for a time as a family.

At first she had a room at the home of one of our Paris friends, then found an apartment of her own. She never bedded at Shakespeare and Company, but for some weeks she worked there – sorting books and guiding customers through the labyrinth of crowded rooms.

The compensation, she remembers, was slight, well under the legal minimum – something like 5 francs, or a bit more than $1, an hour. But the atmosphere of the place was rich.

She recalls the aged proprietor as eccentric, detached.

“He never seemed to look quite at you,” she said.

And he shared his crowded empire with a cat. His own quarters were on one of the floors above.

Paris is a city we love, to which we return as often as possible, never without at least a brief visit to Shakespeare and Company.

Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman – named, obviously, for that earlier bookseller – has operated the shop since her father’s retirement in 2003 from active management.

I never had occasion to actually meet or speak with her. But I did glimpse Mr. Whitman a time or two – a bearded, somewhat disheveled, almost mystical presence, seated in shadows amid the incredible clutter of his tens of thousands of books.

And I will never forget the wonderful surprise of once finding a book of mine, “A Paris Notebook” – a collection of essays written during our year there in the ‘80s – on one of those shelves.

News from Paris does not dependably find its way to our side of the Atlantic. Only recently did I learn, in a note from a friend, that in his upstairs apartment on the 14th of this past December, George Whitman died peacefully, two days past the age of 98.