Culture and Ideas Gold Winner: The Rarest of Editions

by Erin Byrne

There is something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life. -  F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The good man possesses a kingdom. - Seneca, Thyestes.380.

If books are humanity in print, he’s the king of the world.

The old man sits holding his worn paperback.  His gnarled fingers, veins raised under papery skin, caress the cover as if it were an archaeological treasure he has just unearthed in the deserts of Egypt.  His thin plaid-flannel shirted frame hunches on a low stool, knobby knees sticking up at awkward angles.  He sits majestically in his small but stately palace.

He lifts his rheumy eyes and contemplates his kingdom: a tiny set of rooms lit by dusty chandeliers, crammed floor to ceiling with books.  He observes his subjects: an assortment of characters whose eyes glaze over with the wonder of being among thousands of new, old and rare editions.  He savors the sounds of his domain: pages shuffling, pure-pleasure sighs, the murmur of voices, the clattery squeak of the door as it opens, and the nearby bells of Notre Dame.

He lifts his head with its long strands of silky white hair and inhales the comforting scent of that magical combination of books and people: leather, paper, ink and interest.  The promising perfume of historical, imaginary and fantastical lives.  The smell that makes one instantly settle in for a good read.

A girl with short dark hair and berry lips sinks down cross-legged against the Poetry shelf.  Her black eyes race across the page as she whispers.  A graying professor grabs Ulysses and curls up to it while standing.  A bleary-eyed traveler breathes in the limb-loosening smell of home and dives into The World Atlas to plan the next leg of his journey.

The old man smiles, releasing a wreath of leatherish wrinkles and thinks, “A stranger walking the streets of Paris can believe he is entering just another of the bookstores along the left bank of the Seine, but if he finds his way through a labyrinth of alcoves and cubbyholes and climbs a stairway leading to my private residence then he can linger there and enjoy reading the books in my library and looking at the pictures on the walls of my bedroom.”

Such is the welcoming spirit of George Whitman, proprietor of Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris.

George spent time in his youth wandering through South America and the generous hospitality of the locals burrowed its way into his soul.  When he found himself in Paris at the end of the war, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and began building his legendary book collection inside his hotel room on Boulevard St Michel, which became hangout, library of English translations and bookstore for his many friends and anyone else who happened by.  George’s reign of bringing people to books began.

Shakespeare and Company is snuggled inside a little green painted shop on the Rue de la Bûcherie with the Seine so close it nearly runs through it, across from Notre Dame.  “When I opened my bookstore in 1951, this area in the heart of Paris was a slum with street theatre, mountebanks, junkyards, dingy hotels, wine shops, little laundries, tiny thread and needle shops and grocers,” George wrote in his bookstore’s brochure-booklet-manifesto.  He’s always considered himself a modern version of the frère lampier, the 16th century monk whose job it was to light the lamps outside the building, then a monastery.

For nearly 60 years, George has provided a sanctuary for writers and artists, whom he calls ‘tumbleweeds’ (This is the creed of the tumbleweed, give what you can and take what you need).  He invites all to stay in his house provided they read a book a day and put in a few hours at the cash register.  These mostly young, bright-eyed literary angels float around fingering, adjusting, straightening.  They lean against the display table and fervently recommend their favorites.  They discuss authors with the air of heirs to the throne.  “We wish our guests to enter with the feeling they have inherited a book-lined apartment on the Seine which is all the more delightful because they share it with others.”

George, at 95 years old, is now retired and only descends from his upstairs lair to grab a book, greet a guest, or wave to his minions.  His daughter, Sylvia, a young woman in her twenties, swirls through the shop in a pretty skirt and blond ponytail with the poise of a prima ballerina.

Sylvia orchestrates the constant stream of literary events held outside on the sidewalk under the Parisian blue sky, or in George’s own private library upstairs which includes books once held in hands that penned the classics of modern literature  -  Graham Greene, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others.  Their spirits linger to listen and loosen tongues at the poetry readings and writer’s gatherings that bring strangers shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, on the benches that line the walls.  A trip up the narrow staircase at the back of the store brings the visitor face-to-face with furrowed brows, heads bent over scratching pens, or giggling children squeezed together on the floor eager for a story.  An advertisement for a recent event captures the mood that resides in the room atop the rickety stairs:

Tonight Shakespeare and Company launches Bard-sur-Seine.  We’re planning to live up to our name by staging readings of the great Bard’s plays hosted by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, authors of The Essential Shakespeare Handbook.  The first play in the series will be Twelfth Night.  Please note: all the roles in this session of Bard-sur-Seine have now been filled.  As there are only players and no audience in this special production, we ask that only those who have signed up attend.

It is easy to imagine the Bard’s ghost as the lone member of the audience, sitting up straight, hose-clad leg crossed, Elizabethan collar sticking out stiffly.  George would peek out of his bedroom door and shuffle across the room in his slippers to join him, and they’d laugh themselves into stitches at some private joke.

In this age of e-books, audio-books, Kindle-books and virtual books, George holds steadfastly and single-heartedly to the rectangular real thing, which are scattered, staggered, and strewn about when they are not picked up, pored over or propped open.

These weathered books contain poetry the literary monarch knows by heart, heroes he has been, women he has loved, villains he has vanquished, and orphans he has rescued from the streets.  They have taken him to countries he has dreamed of and lands he has conquered.  As Nietzsche observed, books speak out the most hidden and intimate things to those who love them.

On the top shelf, toga-clad Socrates poses a question to bespectacled Sartre.  Rumi rubs shoulders with the irreverent Rimbaud as the wine sings in their veins.   Ghandi’s Autobiography sits straight and still upon A Hundred Years of Solitude. Miller spoons Nin.  Gide, squeezed next to Gibbons, glances across the room and winks at Wilde.  Pink paper-backed Nancy Mitford nestles next to Thomas Mann.  Balzac and Tom Wolfe, thrown together unexpectedly, exchange ironic eye-rolls.  Dumas challenges Dostoevsky to a duel.  Dante burns, Vronsky seduces, Quixote shouts. Gavroche dances in the street.

The action floats out into the city of Paris.  Right up the street, Hemingway and Fitzgerald putter in from their rainy, spirit-swilling road trip - the Renault crawls down Rue Jacob. Across the river Quasimodo swings from the bells, and one can hear the guillotine clatter and slam as it slices the naked neck of Marie Antoinette.  Simone de Beauvoir calmly sips a café crème up the hill at Les Deux Magots.

The bookstore’s namesake boldly assures his company:

Not marble nor the guilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme

George Whitman loves books with a pure love - hardback, paperback, shiny-new, well-worn, leather bound, cloth bound.  Many of them still hold his salty tears within their bindings.  Some he has immersed himself in and then tossed lightly aside, some he has hurled from him with great force.  Some he has read again and again.  A few he has memorized.  This white haired hero is convinced he is living inside a novel.  Who can question this

The most tantalizing books on these shelves are the ones he has never read.  They are virgin territory, unchartered seas.  Between their covers he may find the key to his heart or instructions on how to release his sword from its stone.  They may hold the secret of the fountain of youth and make him live forever.

Henry Miller called Shakespeare and Company a wonderland of books.   Alan Ginsberg enjoyed hanging out having tea with George, as have countless others.  He has engaged in mind-bending conversations with both the famous and the starving writers who are guests in his castle.  His brain has been rubbed and polished to a brilliant shine, even if age is fraying it a bit around the edges.

As George sits on his low stool cradling his precious book, a woman approaches and he gallantly offers his leafy hand.  His face opens in welcome.  George at once apologizes for his disheveled appearance, usually these days he stays upstairs in his pajamas.  The two discover they have a friend in common.   “Ah, of course I remember, he stayed here!” The timbre of his voice belies his age as he politely inquires,   “Are you a writer too “  When she nods, he invites her to stay for as long as she wants.  She is more than welcome anytime she’s in Paris, anytime at all.

The two discuss the book he’s holding and bond of two bibliophiles is fondly established.  They share the anticipation that builds when the cover crinkles open to the first line on the first page.  Both have tumbled over the waterfall-plunge into a story and found themselves engulfed in characters.  They’ve travelled to the center of their own souls while buried between pages.  Both know the heartbreaking finality of the last line on the very last page and the sinking finality  when the cover is closed.  For a long moment, George and the woman stand smiling at each other.

George Whitman has fashioned a life for himself that brings together the two things he loves most in all the world, books and people.  It is this combination that makes him tick.  Old age without loneliness is unusual; George always has a house full of friends.  Fragility without weakness is seldom seen; this man is thin and frail, but his presence is noble.  He is the rarest of editions, a truly happy human being.

“I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions - just a few old socks and love letters, and my windows overlooking Notre Dame for all of you to enjoy.  And my little Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, whose motto is: Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise. I may disappear, leaving no forwarding address, but for all you know I may still be walking among you on my vagabond journey around the world.”

Every evening as George dims the lights, caresses one last book, and glides through his labyrinth as effortlessly as the cats that purr around his ankles, he has lived life to the fullest.  He climbs the twisting stairs, bids a polite Bonsoir to the tumbleweeds, and then the old monarch lays his white wispy-haired head upon the pillow and falls asleep in the lap of legends old.

Leave a Reply

Travelers' Tales