Good Reading : March 2005
54 goodreading fully booked No, you’re not Desmond O’Grady?’ ‘Yes I am − the Australian Desmond O’Grady, not the Irish poet.’ ‘Well, come and see where the Australian Poet Laureate sleeps when in Paris,’ said George Whitman leading the way from his kitchen, where he is pre- paring a meal, to a room with a bed big enough even for Les Mur ray. Pinned to the wall is a handwrit- ten note by Les on the cover of his Collected Poems, thanking Whitman for letting him sleep in ‘the still, dry mind of your wonderful bookstore’. On the walls are photos of Lawrence Dur rell in the bookshop, James Joyce, Er nest Hemingway, Herbert Gold and Scott Fitzgerald in a Parisian park. We’re in George Whitman’s fourth- storey eyrie above the bookshop he set up 53 years ago on the banks of the Seine. There are many confusing stories about George Whitman, some of them spread by himself. One is that he is the illegitimate grandson of the poet Walt Whitman but his 21-year-old daughter Denise says he is the grandson of a sci- entist, Walt Whitman. Commenting on the conflicting versions, the Canadian writer James Patrick O’Hanley wrote ‘the thin man with alert eyes … who runs an impossibly beautiful bookshop on the banks of the Seine is the great- est artistic creation of the bookseller George Whitman’. Rather than ‘impossibly beautiful’ I would call the bookshop homey, even ramshackle. Its façade is garish green, red and yellow wood with an image of a balding Shakespeare sur rounded by the words: ‘Thou art alive still/ While thy Book doth live/ and we have wits to read/ and praise to give’. There is also an image of Whitman,Walt in this case, with a French inscription which says that he looks at passers-by with ardent desire. Given Whitman’s sexual proclivities, Walt that is, this is a little disturbing. George Whitman professedly aims to make clients feel they have inherited a book-lined study by the Seine. On the ground floor there are 53,000 books, more of them new than second-hand. On the first floor is a reference library of over 60,000 volumes, mainly fiction and cur rent affairs. The staple sellers are books by and about the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. The most popular is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast which, among much else, talks of Sylvia Beach who financed the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses and who established the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop on another Parisian site. Usually over 500 copies of A Moveable Feast are sold each month at Shakespeare and Co. Steps rise steeply from the ground floor to the labyrinthine reference library where visitors can browse as long as they please.There are several beds for those invited to stay.Their only obligations are to read a book a day and help out for an hour in the shop.There is a sink for those who want to prepare a meal, a cupboard for backpackers’ packs, a cubby hole with typewriter where writer-con- tortionists can hammer out their master- pieces, a wardrobe labelled ‘Two Cities Editorial Office’, a sign over the door ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’, a mirror with many tributes to Whitman for establish- ing a real place ‘where the love of books prevails’ and for ‘giving a slap to all that’s wrong with humanity’. It is shabby, with books on shelves rising from floor to ceiling, books in boxes, books stacked on other books, books, books and still more books. It looks out at the façade of Notre Dame. Henry Miller called it a wonderland of books.Whitman calls it ‘the rag and bone shop of the heart’ − look that up in Yeats, while the Ministry of Culture has named the bookshop one of the historic monuments of Paris. SHAKESPEARE AND CO. 37, rue de la Bûcherie 75005 Paris FRANCE Opening hours: 12 noon to 12 midnight every day Ph: +33143269650 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: +33 (0)143269650 a book, a bed, & an angel Floor to ceiling books, accommodation, and strangers who could be angels make SHAKESPEARE AND CO. bookshop in Paris a must visit for any bibliophile reports DESMOND O’GRADY.