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Founder of iconic Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company dies
George Whitman, the founder of Paris’s most famous English-language bookstore, died Wednesday aged 98. For sixty years his shop has been a magnet for literary greats, aspiring writers and book lovers.
George Whitman, the founder of the legendary English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company, died on Wednesday in Paris aged 98. He died peacefully in his apartment above the bookshop that attained legendary status as a haven for literary greats and temporary home to aspiring writers.
“After a life entirely dedicated to books, authors and readers, George will be sorely missed by all his loved ones and by bibliophiles around the world who have read, written and stayed in his bookshop for over 60 years,” a statement on store’s website said.
“He created this incredible place, where people want to come hang out,” said Jemma Birrel, who has worked at the shop for the past six years. “People were drawn to his warmth, charisma and eccentricity.”
“He was a bit of a nut, but a charming loony,” Bernard Hermann, Whitman’s neighbour for 37 years, told FRANCE24. “He had a beautiful life, and it’s a chapter of this bookstore that is closing.”
Born in 1913, in the US state of New Jersey, Whitman graduated from Boston University and served in the US Army during World War Two before moving to Paris in 1946. He founded the bookshop in Paris’ artsy Left Bank named Le Mistral, which he later renamed Shakespeare and Company.
In Paris Whitman was host to Beat poets William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He hung out with French writers Anais Nin and Jean Paul Sartre. His shop was a rallying point for revolting youths during the famous May 1968 protests in Paris, and until recently, home to fabled literary tea parties on Sundays.
The American novelist Henry Miller once called his store, “A wonderland of books”.
Home away from home
Facing Notre Dame Cathedral and the River Seine, Shakespeare and Company remains a popular stop for tourists in Paris to this day. On Wednesday morning, many would-be visitors were surprised to find the store closed, with flowers, candles and messages adorning its exterior.
“There were only two places I really wanted to see on this visit. Shakespeare and Company was one,” said Kate Morse, and American who lives in Geneva and was visiting Paris with her husband.
But to countless aspiring writers, Shakespeare and Company was also a place they temporarily called home. Whitman opened his doors to them, offering free room and board in exchange for help re-stacking the bookshelves. A tradition maintained by his daughter, Sylvia Whitman, who has taken over the helm of the shop.
“He provided a unique experience for thousands of [boarders],” added neighbour Hermann. “He was providing them with a place to sleep, but also with a moment, a feeling that they were at the centre of literary culture.”
Pia Copper, 38, a native of Canada and an art dealer in Paris, worked in the store in the 1990s and remained a close friend. “I would not have been able to stay [in Paris] if it were not for George, because it was so expensive. I fell madly in love with Paris because of him,” Copper told FRANCE24.
Whitman is mourned in Paris by the extended family that grew up around his bookshop, but also by countless people around the world who shared his passion for books, travel and writing.
“People have a dream to come to Paris and become a writer… George made that dream possible,” Copper said.