George Whitman (1913-2011)

I was one of many aspiring writers drawn to Paris. In 1964 I went to Le Mistral, the English-language bookstore at 37 rue de laBûcherie, to look for work. I met the owner, George Whitman, who dubiously claimed to be the grandson of the famous American poet, Walt Whitman.

He told me there weren’t any openings but offered me a place to sleep on the floor in exchange for an hour or two of work in the shop. His proposal wasn’t appealing.

A window of my small room at the Hotel Esmeralda overlooked the back of his store that was soon renamed Shakespeare & Company, after the small shop founded by Sylvia Beach decades earlier.

I was surprised to find not only Shakespeare & Company, but also its founder, alive and well during my 2004 stay in Paris. His young daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman was at the front desk. I spent a few minutes looking over the floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with books but didn’t find anything I couldn’t live without.

That year I often I dropped by the San Francisco Bookstore, a much newer establishment at 17 rue Monsieur le Prince, to visit with its owner Jim, who was by then living full-time in France.

San Francisco Bookstore

George Whitman, who was honored by the French government for his contribution to the arts, died 14 December 2011, two days after his 98th birthday. He was an eccentric bohemian that became a Paris legend during his lifetime.

image & text copyright © 2012 by N. A. Diaman, all rights reserved

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