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George Whitman dies at 98; founder of legendary Paris bookshop

Over the years, George Whitman sheltered about 50,000 young, struggling writer types for free at Shakespeare & Co. on the Left Bank. It also was a magnet for writers like Allen Ginsberg, Anais Nin and Lawrence Durrell.

December 15, 2011|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • The front window of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris shows pictures of founder George Whitman, who died at age 98.
The front window of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris shows pictures of founder… (Miguel Medina / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Paris — George Whitman, the legendary founder of the Paris bookshop and literary institution Shakespeare & Co., died Wednesday. He was 98.

The Left Bank bookshop was closed Wednesday, and a note on the door said Whitman had suffered a stroke a few months earlier. He "died peacefully at home in the apartment above his bookshop," the letter said.

On Wednesday night, people stopped to leave notes, flowers and candles along the ground and covering the window of the shop, now run by his daughter, Sylvia. Many of them said the place had always been much more than a bookshop to them, but a second home. Literally.

Over the years, Whitman has sheltered about 50,000 young, struggling writer types for free, right in the shop if they needed a roof, wanted to save a franc, or just had ideas about books and a hankering for a certain bohemian way of life. All they had to do in exchange was work a few hours in the shop, write a one-page biography and provide their picture (an idea born out of Whitman's attempt to appease French authorities who wanted to know more about the clandestine "hotel" he was running on the left bank of the Seine River).

The shop has kept all the letters from past boarders, dubbed "Tumbleweeds" by Whitman, and each one is a testament to how he changed their lives.

Pia Copper said Whitman hired her on the spot in 1994, and she stayed 10 years.

"He found so many young people who were lost, on drugs, totally hopeless, and they lived here. And there was no hard logic to it, other than: Give them a roof, and maybe part of the shop will rub off on them," Copper said.

Though eventually an economic success, attracting book lovers from all over the world and writers such as Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the running joke was that the place rarely actually did what a bookstore is supposed to do: Sell books.

And that was exactly how Whitman wanted it. He used to call Shakespeare & Co. "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop," and in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said: "I never had any money, and never needed it. I've been a bum all my life."

But Whitman was something of a wild-haired, and wild-mannered, king to those who knew him. The land he ruled, with its constant flow of lodgers and poets from all over the world, might as well have come out of the books he loved, and read so voraciously. (One per night.)

Inspired by Sylvia Beach's famous Paris bookstore and publishing house, which closed during World War II, Whitman fashioned the 17th century, two-story apartment into a labyrinth of soft-lit, teetering bookshelves, winding stairs, a library, stacks of well-read Life magazines, and cushy benches that turned to beds at night for Tumbleweeds. Free tea and pancake brunches were served every weekend to anyone brave, or hungry enough. After brunch, the leftover, mysteriously thick pancake batter was used as glue to repair peeling floor rugs.

Whitman didn't care much for supervising the young lodgers that passed through, but his temper could famously flare if a book was misplaced or an edition not shelved just so.

"He's the most un-phony person," Sylvia Whitman, 30, said in an interview this year with The Times. He "says what he thinks, and he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. And it's quite refreshing."

He once threw a book out the second floor window at a customer below because he thought they might enjoy reading it. And he used to light people's hair on fire to save them the trouble of paying for a haircut. After all, he had been using the same technique on himself for years.

Whitman was born in 1913 in East Orange, N.J., and his Shakespeare & Co. universe was largely inspired from his experience hoboing through South America as a teen, where poor locals took him in after he ran out of food and money. He famously used to say he couldn't refuse anyone a roof, "lest they be angels in disguise."

Sylvia Whitman lived with and cared for her father in his final years, while running the shop, which she has delicately nudged into the current century. (She added a cash register and telephone, despite stiff protests from regulars.)

And more than that, she and her staff have also added high-profile concerts, readings, literary prizes and other cultural events to the shop's repertoire, adding her own touch, but keeping the place as active as when Beatnik readings were hosted there by her father. Tumbleweeds are also still welcome.

"We don't want to think of it as an end of an era," said Christopher Copper-Ind, Pia Copper's husband. "Of course it will continue with Sylvia."

Whitman will be buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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