It seems slightly odd to be reading words like “iconic” and “legendary” in tributes to the man in whose bookshop I once, a long time ago, lived, worked, was eaten by bed bugs, got beaten up, searched for love and, just now and then, talked about books.
Although he had known, and often fallen out with, generations of famous writers, George Whitman was not obviously the stuff of legend. Skinny, toothless and with a goatee beard, he presided over his ramshackle empire of books with a restless, irritated manner. He was, to put it politely, careful with money. On one occasion. when the two of us were dining at a cheap Latin Quarter Chinese restaurant, he ate almost nothing but surreptitiously ladled the food into a plastic bag he had brought with him. One plate of noodles spilt on to the floor; George picked them up with his hand and put them in the bag, too.
Yet, in his own cranky way, George was a sort of legend. He probably changed more lives than many of the great authors with whom his bookshop was associated. At the time, I disapproved of the self-mythologising that seemed to surround Shakespeare and Company: the name-checking of those who had read or lived there (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Lawrence Durrell), the pretentious literary chat, the idea that each of us – tourists, wastrels, lost souls – was essentially a writer waiting to discover our talent.
George was right about one thing, though. Shakespeare and Company was more than a bookshop. There would be the girls he called “house-mothers”, making tea under grim culinary conditions. In each of the small, book-lined rooms, a would-be writer would be lounging on one of the uncomfortable beds, dreaming of being Hemingway or Anaïs Nin. Now and then, an established writer would call by, do a reading and leave, usually with a wide-eyed house-mother in tow.
George, in other words, was dealing in dreams. Over the decades, he gave thousands of young women, and quite a few young men, a taste of la vie bohème, a moment when they were writers, living in a bookshop on the Left Bank. Even if some of those staying there turned out to be frauds (the “writer” who bashed me up ended up in an Asian jail on a drugs-running charge), if the conversation was absurdly pretentious, the fantasy endured.
The last time I saw George, he gave me a slim paperback called Tumbleweed Hotel: Volume One, in which the brief autobiographies of some of those who stayed in Shakespeare and Company had been collected. The stories – all by women, of course – ache with a sense of lives changing. Young worlds of chaos, hope and confusion are revealed. The writers may soon have returned home to jobs and families, but they will have done so with a slightly different view of themselves and the world.
George Whitman was one of those rare people who simply by living his own odd and rackety life, re-ordered the realities of others, by opening up new and unlikely possibilities.