Founder of iconic Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co dies

14th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

George Whitman, the founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris -- an iconic English-language literary hub and writers' refuge in the heart of the French capital -- died Wednesday aged 98.

"George Whitman died peacefully at home in the apartment above his bookshop," the shop said in a statement.

"George suffered a stroke two months ago, but showed incredible strength and determination up to the end, continuing to read every day in the company of his daughter, Sylvia, his friends and his cat and dog," it said.

Across the Seine from the Notre Dame Cathedral in the famously literary Latin Quarter, Shakespeare and Company was known to generations in Paris as a haunt of aspiring writers.

Visiting authors and students would work in the shop, sleep in the stacks and soak up Paris's literary atmosphere.

Whitman founded the shop as Le Mistral in 1951, later renaming it after the previous Shakespeare and Company owned by Sylvia Beach, which in the 1920s was a gathering place for writers including Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce.

"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," the shop said.

"George will be remembered for his free spirit, his eccentricity and his generosity -- all three summarised in the Yeats verses written on the walls of his open, much-visited library: 'Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise'," the shop said.

Mourners gathered at Shakespeare and Company on Wednesday, laying flowers and lighting candles outside its doors.

A notice posted on the door said the shop was closed following Whitman's death and that he would be buried in Paris's Pere Lachaise cemetary, where writers including Moliere, Honore de Balzac and Oscar Wilde are buried.

"He was an icon of the Latin Quarter," John Kirby Abraham, a retired Paris journalist and longtime friend of Whitman, said outside the shop.

"People came from all over the world, from all different continents, because they had heard of Shakespeare and Company," Abraham said.

"He was hospitable, he encouraged young journalists, poets and writers... He loved books and he loved creative people."

Born on December 12, 1913, Whitman, who claimed to be a distant relation of American poet Walt Whitman, was raised in Salem, Massachusetts, according to his biography on the shop's website.

After graduating with a degree in journalism from Boston University in 1935, he set off on a 5,000-kilometre (3,100-mile) journey through Central America, much of it on foot, that instilled in him a passion for travel.

He was called to military service in 1941 and served as a medic during World War II at military hospitals throughout Europe.

After the war he briefly ran a small bookstore in Massachusetts but eventually moved permanently to Paris under the US GI Bill, which provided assistance to returning veterans.

He studied French literature at the Sorbonne and in 1951 founded the bookshop at 37 Rue de la Bucherie on the Left Bank.

In the 1950s the shop became a hub for the Beat generation of writers living in Paris, including Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was a lifelong friend of Whitman.

Over the following decades, Shakespeare and Company played host to generations of young writers who flocked to Paris for literary inspiration and were invited by Whitman to stay in beds he had set up amongst the stacks.

In recent years it remained much as it had always been -- a cluttered labyrinth of bookshelves and alcoves spread over two floors of a twisting 16th-century building.

Whitman's daughter Sylvia, born at the nearby Hotel Dieu hospital in 1981 and named after Beach, took over running the store about a decade ago.

She oversaw its modernisation and expansion into other ventures, including publishing a magazine and founding a literary prize for aspiring writers.

In 2006 Whitman was made an officer in France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which recognises significant contributions to the arts.

© 2011 AFP

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