October 27, 2014

Vanity Fair profiles the “most famous independent bookstore in the world”


Bruce Handy profiles Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company in the November issue of Vanity Fair.

Bruce Handy profiles Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company in the November issue of Vanity Fair.

In an “age of Amazon,” writes Bruce Handy in the November issue of Vanity Fair, Shakespeare and Company, the legendary bookshop in Paris is a “destination” with lines out the door, and just as “enchanting” for visitors as it has always been throughout its illustrious history. He credits Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter who now manages the shop, who is likened to a “fairy-tale princess who has been tasked, or privileged, with tending a magic portal.”

The profile offers a history of the bookstore under George Whitman, who died in 2011 at the age of 98, and ways that Sylvia and her partner David Delannet have brought the shop into a new age—with festivals, performances, a packed calendar of readings, and lots of technological improvements—not to mention a publishing venture, a book about the store, a new website, and a cafe coming soon.

Handy corrects some legends and rumors about George’s biography, which can be difficult to do with any sort of authority:

“..[I]n all my years as a journalist, I’ve never seen a clipping file so full of contradictory information. For instance, George liked to tell interviewers he was a cousin or nephew of even the bastard grandson of Walt Whitman. in truth, he was no relation to the poet, although his father, a physics professor, was indeed named Walt. Sylvia and David have had to sic fact-checkers on George’s biography to straighten our basic details for the Shakespeare and Company history—even simple stuff, such as where he went to college. (He got his undergraduate degree at Boston University and later briefly enrolled at Harvard).”

And he offers up some recent finds from the “archives” of the bookshop, from Sylvia and David’s discovery of “an unpublished manuscript of Gregory Corso poems and drawings, which had been shoved in among a bunch of moldering papers above a water tank in George’s bathroom” (Corso was always having run-ins with George, in part because he had a habit of stealing from the shop), to more unsavory finds, like a “resume of someone who just wanted to work at the bookstore, from maybe 1976, stuck to a letter from Anais Nin—stuck to it with a dead cockroach.” Handy offers confirmation in a parenthetical: “It’s true,” he writes. “I saw the stain.”

And here’s the kicker— they even found Dick Cheney’s business card from his “stint during the 90s at Haliburton” in George’s papers—without any leads for context.

It’s a well-deserved portrait of Sylvia’s decade-long tenure at Shakespeare & Company, and a tribute to George—the “founding visionary.”

In my experience as a “tumbleweed” when I stayed at the shop in the final decade of his life, George was a sweet and generous man—always a trickster with a temper that would flare up, who would then dissolve into sweetness with a twinkle in his blue eyes. He was always mysterious. Always inspiring.

Recently, I came across a journal from one of the last times I saw George on a trip to Paris. I had climbed up the stairs to his apartment, and found him in his room, reading the newspaper. He sighed and looked at me: “Isn’t it wonderful to be a person so alive in this world?” he exclaimed.

I still feel that way when I visit Shakespeare and Company.


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.