Monday, March 09, 2009

DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS

For half a century, a crowded bookshop on the Left Bank has offered food and a bed to penniless authors - the only rule is that they read a book a day. Jeanette Winterson revisits Shakespeare and Company
Jeanette Winterson writing in The Guardian, Saturday 7 March 2009


Not on the pay-n-go Anglo-Saxon business model: browsers at Shakespeare and Company, Paris. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

I first met George Whitman in 2007 when he hit me over the head with a book. I was in Paris, standing on the pavement outside the English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, talking to George's daughter Sylvia, when a copy of Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London whizzed down from the third floor of the building. Direct hit - but intended for Sylvia, not me.
"What does a man have to do to get some attention around here?" I looked up, and there was George, 93, leaning out of the window in his pyjamas, taking aim with another volume.
"Dostoevsky! The Idiot! Ha ha!"
Sylvia took my arm and checked my head. "Do you want to come up and meet Dad?"
We pushed our way through the crowded shop, Sylvia stopping every two seconds to answer a question or help a customer. The books are piled over two floors - the ground floor deep and open, stacked with new and in-print titles, the upper floor a warren of second-hand volumes, anything from Gibbon to Hemingway. There's a library space for sitting and reading because this shop isn't a pay-n-go Anglo-Saxon business model, it's a place for the browser and the flâneur. You pass the time here, in the company of books.
Perched above all this, like an old eagle, is George Whitman. He used to sleep on a mattress in among the books, but along the way he managed to buy the apartment upstairs, and now he lives his book-lined life with a bed, a sink, a bath, a table and an ancient stove, the stewpot steaming up the windows and fogging the view across to Notre Dame. George likes cooking for his family - he has only one daughter, but a big, boisterous, ever-changing family, and that's the way it's been since 1951, when the demobbed GI, who had chosen Paris as his home, decided to open a bookstore.
Read Winterson's full entertaining piece at The Guardian online.
And for an earlier posting on this blog on the subject of Shakespeare & Co link here.

2 comments:

An Anonymous Child said...

Thank you for linking to this. I somehow always miss the most interesting Guardian updates... What a fascinating piece. I think this is something almost every book-lover should read. The photo of the store alone is enough to give me the urge to go there.

Dean Parker said...

I was in Paris 15 years ago and sought out Shakespeare & Co. The place was empty apart from a small and very old man with a white goatee beard sitting at the front desk reading the International Herald Tribune. I recognised him as the owner of the shop, George Whitman (the great-nephew of Walt, I’d been told). I nodded at him, then looked at the shelves’ array of English titles. He suddenly called out and asked if he could help me. I said no, just browsing. He then asked if I was in Paris on holiday. I said no, business. He asked what sort of business I was in and I said –- hesitantly, since I was surrounded with great framed photographs of Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound and James Joyce -- that I wrote. Up to this point he had been looking at me while keeping his International Herald Tribune up before him like a shuttered window. Upon hearing the nature of my business, he put the paper down, leaned forward and asked what I had written; perhaps he had some of my works in his bookshop? I said there was little chance of that as I mainly wrote for television. He picked up his newspaper and never spoke to me again.