vendredi 3 février 2012

The end of an era

A moving celebration was held last December in honor of George Whitman, bookseller célèbre and Paris literary icon, who now rests among esteemed company (Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Appollinaire and Jim Morrison, to name just a few of his new roommates) at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Part of my Paris memories are strongly tied to his bookshop Shakespeare and Company. Having expatriated long before the availability of the internet, 37 rue de la Bûcherie was my go-to site when seeking like-minded anglophone bibliophiles. After brain fatigue set in from trying to master le subjontif, I'd make my way to his bookshop and pick up one of the 25-franc (this was the pre-euro era) used paperbacks in English. When I was really broke, I'd help myself from the "free" box, set outside the front door, which contained genres which weren't my favorite--lots of detective and romance novels--but whose familiar language made reading effortless after a day with Voltaire.

Shakespeare and Company was a place where I knew I fit in. It was an embracing and comfortable shelter when I felt too brash, too loud, too American, floundering around in the sea of Parisians I'd plunged myself into at the age of 21. Part of me wanted to become that French girl, of course--no one voluntarily expatriates oneself only to hang onto her birth culture, but there were days I just longed use the words I was born into. The bookshop was a place I could do that. Inside, surrounded by copies of Ginsberg's Howl, Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, I could start up a conversation with another San Franciscan and alternately complain about and marvel at our adopted culture for hours.

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In 2005 I was priviledged to be a participant in a 12-week writing workshop held on the second floor of the bookshop. It was a time in my life where I had a lot of words seeking to show themselves. The workshop was instrumental in helping me string these words together in a beautiful, succinct way. Some of what I consider my best short essays came out during that time, pieces such as Drum and I Know How This Will End. The easy-fit I felt sitting in that room with Others Like Me was...nourishing.

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There are several books that saw their genesis under George's roof. My favorite, and one which I find captures the soul of the Shakespeare and Company experience, is Jeremy Mercer's Time Was Soft There. It does a fine job of conveying what it is like to be down and out in modern Paris as well as giving the reader a real sense of the bookshop's-- and George Whitman's--history (and demons, in the latter's case).

We all feel a bit in the dark now that Whitman's light has been extinguished. That said, I know the bookshop will continue to be that soft and familiar place to land and congregate. The spirit of George will watch over it, assuring that this historical institution continues to leave open its rooms filled with books and inspiration.


2 commentaires:

  1. What a lovely and touching tribute!

    1. Thanks. I love this place. I'm convinced it will always stand, never to be beaten by the online vendors. It's sacred.