Pia Copper-Ind writes:
The world sees few men like George Whitman. In the harsh capitalist world of today, George’s morals and his motto “Live for humanity” almost seem a thing of the past. For so many people, 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Paris was so much more than a bookstore, it was home for a few months, a place to dream, to write and be inspired in front of one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, Notre-Dame, a site Whitman referred to as “Kilometer Zero”, the ultimate address.
Many thousands of twenty-something men and women from all over the world, would-be writers and artists, were served up George’s pancakes and his strawberry ice-cream while they strove to become the next Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce. Whitman would tell people to ‘read a book a day’ and ‘write the next great novel’ upstairs. Everyone had to write their biography and leave it for posterity. And there were writers. Lawrence Durrell was one of George’s greatest friends, Richard Wright was a regular, Henry Miller called the place a “wonderland of books”. His companion-in-arms was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who also came to Paris in the postwar years with POW money and then started his own bookstore in San Francisco publishing the “Beats” who drifted between Paris (Shakespeare and Co.), Tangiers and Big Sur. George was even rumoured to be a “Don Juan” of the arrière-boutique, seducing the mysterious Anais Nin. But perhaps he was more of a Prince Myshkin or a Don Quixote, as he liked to call himself: a man of books and letters more than a man of passions. Anais Nin called him “a saint among his books, lending them, having penniless friends upstairs in his Utrillo house, not too steady on its foundations, small windows wrinkled shutters.”
I myself found Shakespeare and Co one cold November afternoon in 1994. Someone told me to go and read in the library upstairs and I did, spending a few luxurious hours in the first-floor sitting room, leafing through the moth-eaten volumes which all seemed to be autographed first editions. Suddenly, a man with a goatee appeared from behind the books, seventy or so, a wrinkled figure, his clothes dandyish, paisley and velvet.
“What are you doing in Paris?” he asked. “Studying Chinese at the Sorbonne,” I replied. “I grew up in China. We lived in a fortified house with my parents who were missionaries. It was when the warlords were in charge. I used to picnic on the hills of Nanjing with Pearl Buck as a child. Yang Guizi!” he yelled, “yang guizi,” imitating the Chinese when they used to shout at the blond- and auburn-haired foreigners with their westernised long noses. I told him how I too had lived in Peking in the Friendship Hotel when everybody was wearing the blue Mao uniform, and had always dreamed of coming to Paris, to write and to have a literary salon like Mme de Stael. The very next day, I received a note in the box of my rooms at the Cité Universitaire: “Shakespeare and Company needs you. Come at 8.” When the time came, I was welcomed by George who gave me a pencil stub and told me to invite any writers I should encounter to live upstairs. I sat in the midst of the volumes, as though surrounded by the souls of thousand writers and their lives on the shelves. Though havoc ensued. I had no idea how to sell books, could barely count in francs and didn’t know where anything was. No matter, I soon understood and when I left the bookstore that night, walking out into the glorious salmon-colored evening, past Notre-Dame and the bateaux mouches throwing shadows on the walls of the buildings, I knew I had arrived. From that moment on, Paris would be my home. That was nineteen years ago and the Canadian girl never left.
Of course, the bohemian years are almost over. The years when George one Christmas Eve thrust half a Roquefort cheese at me and a young British-American writer and a film producer from LA and told us to “go and celebrate in the streets.” I remember also the day George announced a “millionaire Communist” had arrived and introduced me to Allen Ginsberg who had to use his credit card to open the writer’s studio, as George had mislaid the keys. Or the day Ted Joans arrived, the only black Beat poet with his gorgeous ethnologist girlfriend. Joans came to stay and collect moneys for his annual pilgrimage to Timbuktu. Or when Ferlinghetti, George and I shared too many sweet sherries from the marché at the place Maubert and he sang songs from the ’30s such as “Do not violate me in violet time,” and recited poetry with gusto.
I particularly remember George, always generous, in his “rag-and-bone shop of the heart” where he urged people to “be not unkind to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.”
I made some of my best friends at Shakespeare and some of these went on to great things. I myself became an expert of Chinese art, after spending hours drinking cups of tea in unheated artist’s studios from Shanghai to Beijing to Chongqing. George was alway there to welcome me when I got back, with a “you start tonight”, noting my hungry look. George always had a book in his hand and it was always the latest book, even down to Barack Obama’s memoirs. He was forever reading, always talking, always plotting among the books. Romances grew there. Books were born there. Friendships germinated among the books.
Yesterday afternoon, the “Tumbleweeds” (Shakespeare’s aspiring writers, thespians and literateurs) were gathered upstairs to recall their stories and drink tea with Sylvia, George’s daughter who has taken up the challenge of restoring the place and offering room and board to starving bright young things. She even started a literary festival, and continues the Sunday tea parties and the poetry readings almost every week in the bookstore. Sylvia looked pale, her wavey blonde hair framing an angelic face. She wore a long, black skirt with small roses. “George would have approved,” she said. She had just spent eight weeks with him, saying goodbye. She told us how a statue of Don Quixote, George’s literary hero, would grace his tomb at the Père Lachaise, where he would be in fine company: Balzac, Apollinaire, Jim Morrison and co.
We cried a little, laughed a little. Recounted our time there and the old man and his legacy. We all waited together for George to leave the bookstore, huddling outside with a tumbler of wine. The bells of Notre-Dame chimed seven and he left the bookshop for ever, on to other horizons. But the spirit of the place lingers. The poetry of it, the atmosphere of the past, the enthusiasm and dreaminess of the Lost Generation where and when we could all be Zelda or Djuna or Gertrude or Henri and Paris could be our place, a grand theatre of life. As Adrian Hornsby, now a playwright living in London said upon hearing the news, “Curtain down on a grand and human show. We’ll never see its like again. But we’re much much richer for having seen it once. World – throw your roses!”
— Pia Copper-Ind