An American Bookseller in Paris – RIP George Whitman

When I think of Paris, what always comes to mind is books. Not the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysées but rather the cafés where Ernest Hemingway spent many a day writing – or not.

Ernest Hemingway

So one of my favorite places in Paris is Shakespeare & Company, an English bookstore made famous by Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anaïs Nin, T.S. Eliot and many others whose names line my bookshelves.

I was sad to hear the news that the store’s founder, George Whitman, died a few days ago. Even though I never met him, since he stayed in his apartment above the shop most of the time, it’s because of him that I got to experience a little bit of being Parisian.

When I lived in Paris for a month this year, Shakespeare & Co. was one of the first places I returned to. I had heard that the store seeks volunteers, often providing housing in exchange for a few hours of work in the bookstore. I already had an apartment, but I wanted some work (even unpaid) to fill my days. I have worked in 2 bookstores and 2 libraries in my lifetime, so this was my dream un-job.

I spoke to the woman at the register, who turned out to be the owner’s daughter, Sylvia Whitman, who has been running the store for the past few years. She was welcoming and told me to come in whenever I was ready. I did, and they immediately put me to work shelving books.

They told me to come back whenever I wanted. I had no set schedule. Each day, I took the Metro to Place Saint-Michel and walked through the charged Latin Quarter to the shop, always asking, “Do you need any help today?” and getting the same reply: “Always.”

This was my daily routine. This was my un-job in Paris.

Working at S & Co.

They say you don’t really know a city until you work there. I believe that to be true. While there’s no substitute for fighting your way onto a subway at rush hour each day, having some sort of daily commute does gives you a sense of really living in a city. Shakespeare & Co. helped me feel a little less like a tourist and a little more like a resident.

In the shop, books were tightly packed into the shelves from floor to ceiling. The narrow space was often crowded just as tightly with people, many of them looking around in awe, shyly snapping pictures of each other. One time, a photographer set up a wedding shoot for a bride and groom in the library upstairs.

I made way for new books, reorganized the sections, helped customers find a title or author. The official language of Shakespeare & Co. was English. However, more than once, I was approached for help in French. Vous travaillez ici? While I am not fluent, I was often able to help customers entirely in French. Other times, the anglo pronunciation of a book title gave someone away, and we switched to our native language, usually much to the customer’s relief.

On Monday evenings, the store held readings by celebrated authors. Rather than working, I often came just for the readings. I saw a Pulitzer-winning author, NYU faculty and the winners of the Paris Literary Prize.

A reading at the bookstore

There was always something exciting happening. One day, I came to work to find cameras set up for the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Sylvia appeared on camera with Craig Ferguson in front of the shop. I tried to discreetly stay out of the way. When I watched the segment a few months later, though, I had made it into one of the shots.

Sylvia Whitman is sitting next to Craig Ferguson

While I wasn’t paid in euros, I did earn books for my shifts. (And as a writer and avid reader, I would rather be paid in books than most anything else). I began reading titles I had long heard of but never picked up, like James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” a book that struck a deep nerve, and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, just now coming out in theatres. I was singing the praises of James Frey to my co-worker, and astonishingly, she told me he had been in the store earlier that day. He’s a good friend, she told me. I couldn’t believe I had missed meeting him.

I adored my un-job so much that I sometimes forgot that I was volunteering and could take breaks. I would hurry back from grabbing lunch, too much like an American worker than a French employee. I had to remind myself where I was.

It wasn’t hard. After one of my first shifts, I picked out a book to take home, choosing as carefully as a child allowed just one piece of candy. I settled on a guide of walking tours of Hemingway’s haunts. At the register, my co-worker stamped the book with the legendary store symbol and slipped a postcard and bookmark inside.

As I stepped out the front door of the shop, ready to make my way home that evening, the Seine and Notre Dame cathedrale in front of me, I looked down at the book in my hand, from one of the most famous bookstores in the world. From a shelf once touched by Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller. I was overcome with gratitude. That, to me, was why I loved Paris.

Many people have their own stories about Shakespeare & Co., and specifically about knowing George Whitman. I cannot claim such brushes with fame, nor are they important to me. Rather I am thankful that he created a place that welcomed writers and readers, that this haven is still there today, and that I could be a small part of it. Thank you, George Whitman. You touched more lives than you could ever know.

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2 thoughts on “An American Bookseller in Paris – RIP George Whitman

  1. Years ago I was there and I swear it was George himself who recommended French or Foe. I still have it on my shelf. Also loved the book Time Was Soft There about one writer’s extended stay at the bookstore. I don’t think they’re too fond of it if I recall, but I really loved that book. I make it a point to stop in now everytime I’m in Paris.

    • Liza, thanks for your memory about George. He really touched so many lives…I have French or Foe too. Will have to check out the other book you mentioned. Another good one is: Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. Really hilarious account of an Australian ex-pat trying to assimilate into French culture.

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