They used to catch glimpses of him shuffling among the stacks in his English-language bookshop facing Notre Dame Cathedral, the white-haired Shakespearean king revered and feared by his subjects, who depended on him to avoid a train ride home, or worse, a job.
They would get to know George Whitman’s spitfire wit, unpredictable temper and unending generosity after sleeping in his shop, where he has put up thousands of struggling writers and wandering youths in the 60 years since he opened Shakespeare and Company.
He was the kind of man who never spent a cent on himself; he’d light his hair on fire with a candle because it was a cheap way to get a trim. (He occasionally used the technique on customers, whether or not they knew what was coming.)
He’s such a legend that it’s no wonder a lot of customers at the bookshop on Rue de la Bucherie ask whether Whitman, an American born in 1913, is still alive. (More on that later.)
And they wonder whatever happened to the little daughter he used to carry on his shoulders through warmly lighted narrow nooks or leave sitting in the shop window with the cat.
Sylvia Whitman, a 30-year-old with a ready smile and a fairy-blond crop of curls, likes telling about the occasional customer who inquires whether the proprietor’s daughter is alive, doubtful she could have survived a childhood spent in a “very beatnik” Shakespeare and Company frequented by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
“I would have been crazy if I’d grown up here,” she says. “I’d be on drugs.”
Sylvia left that world behind at age 7 with her mother and became estranged from her father. But now, a kind of Cordelia to Whitman’s King Lear, she has fallen for him and the store.
“When I got here, I was so kind of blown away by him,” she says. “He’s such an eccentric character, interesting but also so terrifying in a way.... And I really wanted to have a relationship with him.”
She gave up her ambition to be an actress to take on the management of the bookstore, bringing the shop into the 21st century while being true to its bohemian roots.
Inspired by Sylvia Beach’s early 20th century bookshop of the same name where writers such as Hemingway hung out, Whitman’s version is a fitting sequel to Beach’s era.
Curling photos of Shakespeare and Company habitues decorate crooked, aging walls. From unpublished poets to drunken literary enthusiasts to a French railway worker, many slept on the makeshift beds squeezed between shelves of musty books.
In addition to being a charming spot for tourists, expats and artists to spend rainy afternoons, the place has long been an unpredictably mad, theatrical universe of its own, thanks to George Whitman’s open-door philosophy, which focused less on selling books than on gathering readers under the store’s cracked and peeling roof.
Whitman used to say he offered beds to strangers “lest they be angels in disguise.” Rather than focus on the writing they were half-expected to do, along with helping in the shop, they and the proprietor shared bottles of cheap wine and stories late into the night. By day, they tasted Whitman’s tea and the glue-like pancakes he made for Sunday brunch.
“When I’m here, I try not to think about plans for tomorrow,” said one recent tumbleweed, 18-year-old Saul Thompson, from Somerset in southwest England.
“They took me in right away. It was either Shakespeare and Company or going back to Somerset, and I couldn’t think of anything worse than that,” he said, sitting on a bench that doubles as a bed after closing.
Thompson had trouble getting used to the commotion during Monday night author readings, but he quickly felt at home among what he calls his Paris “community,” a kind of shelter from the fast-paced city.
A sense of refuge envelops those who enter the store. Sylvia says that’s why, for her father, “if you’re not in the world of Shakespeare and Company, it’s not that you don’t count, but you’re just not in his world.”
That is also a reason why the distance grew between father and daughter while Sylvia was living in Britain, until she was 21.
“He’s not someone — in any way, a modern person — where he’d pick up the phone,” she says. “I think he thought about me, and every now and then he sent me a letter. … We just kind of lost touch.”
But “something clicked” as she neared the end of her studies in Eastern European history at University College London, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. It was 2002, and her father was 88.
“I thought, I can’t not get to know him and regret it for the rest of my life,” she says. “My plan was to spend the summer at the bookshop with Dad, but his mentality is that you’ve got to do something in the bookshop, you should always be working. It doesn’t matter who it is.”
So despite knowing nothing about bookselling, Sylvia started what she now calls her father’s “test,” to see whether she could run the place.
The experience turned into a much deeper trial.
“There were scenes of screaming at each other in the shop, and making all the customers feel awkward,” she says. “And then there were other moments of really having laughing fits, and buying books together.
“He’s really very witty … and that’s quite addictive to be around.”
Though Sylvia wanted to “preserve the essence of the place,” the transition was a delicate balancing act in an establishment strictly governed by aversion to change. Customers include people who have actually lived in the store, adding to their feelings of possessiveness about it.
Whitman himself resisted even the slightest innovations.
“He used to take me around the store, like on a ride, and he’d say what had to be put back after Sylvia had changed it,” says David Delannet, who works for Shakespeare and Company and is Sylvia’s boyfriend. “For me, the bookshop is an extension of his body. That’s why he has such a passionate relationship with the place.
“This thing which I thought was anarchy is actually carefully thought out, with an artistic sense. That’s why it’s hard for him to let his daughter take over.”
Nevertheless, Sylvia persisted with ideas to attract authors and new readers.
“I would be very bored working somewhere that wasn’t evolving,” she says, remembering a guidebook comment years ago that the store was resting on its laurels.
“I had the confidence to contradict him, which not many people had before. And I was just as stubborn as him.... And actually, what did I know? … But it came down to, this is my father and he’s driving me crazy,” she says.
Today she is the shop’s uncontested manager, and changes have included ambitious projects such as regular literary festivals with best-selling authors, a 10,000-euro (about $14,500) literary prize for unpublished writers, a literary magazine, concerts in and around the shop, plus weekly readings by A-list writers.
Sylvia is more diplomatic than her father. She is also more practical. But she shares his energy and idealism and is willing to make any interesting proposal a reality, “if it doesn’t bankrupt us or mean we can’t sleep for a month.”
“If it’s possible, then it has to happen, and I think that’s the general attitude here,” she says. “Dad always says the shop is a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop.”
Sylvia talks to her father about “business,” but also about her personal life.
“We have a really, really beautiful relationship now. I probably would say he is my best friend. And I really share everything with him.”
The old Yank on the Left Bank, who bought the store from an Arab grocer for a song, is 97 and spends most days in bed above the store.
“I am a rich man, but I live like a tramp,” he said recently. “That’s pretty idiotic.” This was in answer to a question about why his favorite book was Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot.”
But he was clearly proud of what he had accomplished. Lying in bed with his white cat and a coffee eclair, Whitman said that for his whole life he’s looked for a woman like a character he loved in “The Idiot,” someone whose heart was “pure.”
Surrounding him were close-up photographs of Sylvia at every age.
Lauter is a special correspondent.