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Thursday, 15 December 2011

Shakespeare and Company

I was sorry to read today of the passing of George Whitman, who founded the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris. I stayed here when I was a student, and had the most amazing few days in George's company. I'm not sure how my friend Ronnie and I had heard that accommodation at the bookshop was absolutely free, in return for a few hours' work, but we had set off to Paris after our finals with very little money and the intention of helping out in return for our bed and board. This is the shop (above). The image is from my ancient camera circa 1984, so apologies for the quality.

Photo of George Whitman from The Guardian, obituary column, December 15

George Whitman was a very distinctive looking figure, with a pointed beard and twinkly eyes. He had a direct manner, and didn't suffer fools gladly, but he let us stay. The beds were dotted around the bookshop, literally just mattresses placed by shelves with some well-used blankets on top. The shop overlooked the Seine. There were no bathrooms, just a very basic loo (Ronnie remembers George bellowing at her to answer the door when she was incarcarated in the john), so we'd pop over to the cafe across the street to wash and eke out a few francs on coffee and bread. We ended up doing some work in the shop, and we cleaned the kitchen of George's apartment, which seemed a pretty fair deal to us. I seem to recall that his wife and young daughter were there at the time. His wife was making a risotto, with a rainbow of vegetables, while we cleaned out cupboards and scrubbed the floor. Later, we were invited to attend one of the literary salons. Today I read that George's daughter has taken over the shop and continues his legacy.

On the ferry, heading to George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company (hello huge '80s hair!)

I found the whole set up wildly romantic: all those books and interesting people! We met students from all over the world during our brief stay. In fact, I still have a tatty old copy of Proust with everybody's addresses scrawled on the jacket and there are names from Israel, America and Germany. It's an interlude that I'll never forget. 

RIP George Whitman.

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