December 15, 2011

Hail & Farewell: George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare & Co.


Dave Eggers visits George Whitman and daughter Sylvia in Shakespeare & Co.

George Whitman, the American who owned one of the world’s most well-known — and beloved — bookstores, Shakespeare & Company, famously located on the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral, died yesterday from the after-effects of a stroke at the age of 98. He died in his apartment above the store, says a New York Times obituary by Marlise Simmons. 

As Simmons notes,

Mr. Whitman’s store, founded in 1951, has also been a favorite stopover for established authors and poets to read from their work and sign their books. Its visitors list reads like a Who’s Who of American, English, French and Latin American literature: Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett and James Baldwin were frequent callers in the early days; other regulars included Lawrence Durrell and the Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, all of them Mr. Whitman’s friends.

Whitman named the store after the most famous bookstore of the previous generation, the original Shakespeare & Company founded by Sylvia Beach, which was several blocks distant, and was famous as a hangout for Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce.

But Whitman was known not only for the famous writers who hung out at his Shakespeare & Company, but because he also “provided food and makeshift beds to young aspiring novelists or writing nomads, often letting them spend a night, a week, or even months living among the crowded shelves and alcoves,” notes Simmons. “By his own estimate, he lodged some 40,000 people.”

Whitman with daughter Sylvia in front of the store in early days

“I wanted a bookstore because the book business is the business of life,” he said.

Whitman has been somewhat infirm the last few years, although those who have visited the store of late — such as this writer — can attest that it has not lost its welcoming air. During that time, and as one hopes into the future, it has been run by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia — named after Sylvia Beach.



Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.