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In Memorium: George Whitman and “the Next Generation” of Book Business

Publishing Trendsetter has set out to be relevant to “a new generation of publishers,” and I am firmly of the belief that one of the most valuable things to any “new” generation is a connection to generations that came before, along with a nuanced understanding of what remains constant, what has changed, and why.

Everyone who read last week of the death of George Whitman, age 98,

George Whitman in 1992

and founder of Shakespeare & Co. (the memorial homepage they have up now is stunning; be sure to take a look) bookstore in Paris, had his or her own reason to exclaim aloud and feel a bit punched in the stomach. I myself was reminded of the role that Shakespeare & Co. played in my own “coming of age story” (which I assure you, dear reader, is very much unfinished). But ironically, while thinking of  the great age George achieved, of how long the bookstore itself has been standing there on the Left Bank, and of what a venerable legacy it is heir to, what I thought most vividly was youth and new beginnings.

There are countless stories out there that you can read and hear (I found Time Was Soft There particularly interesting) of people coming to Shakespeare & Company when their lives were most confusing and restless, and when they were hungry to do (or write) something but didn’t know where to start. These people were almost inevitably young, and came to George at the start of their careers as artists and as people. Even though time passed, the cast of characters thronging (and writing and sleeping in) George’s bookstore perpetually renewed its youth.

In this age of The Threatened Bookstore, I know that Shakespeare & Co. owes lots of its success to its romance and singularity: not every bookstore can be on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame, a minority language bookstore, or half a century old this year. But I wonder if what George started doing in a generation of book business so different from our own is exactly what makes any bookstore irresistable–that radical welcome to people trying to find their way, the absolutist support of writers and their work, and most of all, making the space sacred by allowing it to be whatever the people who walk through its door need it to be. Doing this look different for every bookstore, but it has nothing to do with whether the store is in Paris or not.

I never slept under George’s roof. I had one week’s vacation in Paris during my gap year, post-highschool. But in that week, I think I must’ve visited Shakespeare & Co. every day, my heart pounding every time I appoached the bookstalls out front. There are a lot of specific, personal reasons that the store stands as a milestone in my life the way it does, but there is also the fact that everyone in there acts like–and the place feels like–they are selling the Bread of Life. Every time I walked through the door, I realized I had come on very urgent business.

 

I am so thankful for Shakespeare & Co. and for the few days of my life that it blessed directly. And I am thankful for George’s half-century of radical welcome, especially to young people, especially young people at loose-ends and for the way he trusted them. Whenever anyone talks about George and the store, they inevitably mention the words on an inside doorframe there at 37 Rue De La Bûcherie: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” George knew that those angels often come disguised as rag-tag young people with a whole lot of passion and often very little wisdom. But he let them in, and trained many in the wonderful and difficult task of making a bookstore truly come alive: day after day, year after year, lifetime after lifetime.

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