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American's bookstore in Paris becomes family affair

Sylvia Whitman gave up her ambitions in order to manage her father's iconic Paris bookstore, stitching together their frayed ties and bringing the shop into the 21st century.

April 21, 2011|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times

"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projects such as regular literary festivals with best-selling authors, a 10,000-euro (about $14,500) literary prize for unpublished writers, a literary magazine, concerts in and around the shop, plus weekly readings by A-list writers.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.

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