Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
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amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
"Remembering George Whitman,” Book Source Magazine (March/April 2012) George Whitman, the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, died on December 14.  If you were young and bookish, and happened to be in Paris on a Sunday, chances are you were invited by George to the tea party that took place above his shop. I attended many times when I was student in the 1980s.  George's Sunday salon was a fixture of the expat circuit. Novelists, au pairs, tourists, and artists met for refreshments and talk.  Commentators mull over the future of the bookstore.  How can it survive in the face of online sales and declining literacy? George had the answer: Free food.  For some it was the domestic and nutritional highlight of the week.  There was one painter who lived on the Canal Saint-Martin.  I visited him a couple times on his boat.  We sat in the cabin, gloved and hatted, our breath visible.  Thus it was, no doubt, for many Sunday regulars.     A memorable exception was a pretty and playful English girl.  She was a world away from the customary indigence.  George had a soft spot for girls, and he knew her father, who worked in publishing.  He made her dinner, which he served in another room.  Nothing was too much trouble.     The original Shakespeare and Company was a legendary place in the 1920s and '30s.   George Whitman's bookstore, which succeeded to the Shakespeare and Company name in 1964, hosted various postwar writers. Its literary importance was much diminished by the 1980s, but its moral support was invaluable.  To be an American in France in those years meant being quizzed on obscure points of Latin American policy.  It meant being told that "the American role in World War II was overrated."  The waiter who served your croque- monsieur complained about his cousin's treatment at the hands of Houston customs agents. And while American friendliness was rejected as superficial, any expression of reserve was a bigoted intolerance of foreign cultures.  You couldn't win.  In this context, the banality of conversation was a blessing.  You arrived bowed by the baker's lecture on nuclear deterrence, and were refreshed sipping punch and talking about the Louvre. I studied at an American institute.  The instruction was first-rate, but socially, the place was limited.  What American student goes oversees to be with other American students?  Actually, many did just that, hanging around the lounge, waiting for the mail delivery. I also took classes at the Sorbonne,  which was intense but isolated.  French students are slow to form friendships. My classmates lived with their parents, often in remote suburbs. That I knew very few people was to be expected, but I was surprised to realize how little contact they had with each other outside class. Home life (such as it was) was with a French family in the Marais.  They were fixing up a large apartment and raised money for the renovation by renting out the spare bedroom.  Not a week went by when they did not mention that it was a financial arrangement. Thank heaven for Shakespeare and Company. It was open late and on holidays.  Nor was it shut down by political unrest.  The shop windows shined brightly through bombings and riots. There was a prolonged transportation strike that winter, which was one of the coldest since the war with ice floes in the Seine.   It was a bracing walk, but I didn't mind. I had imposed on myself a French-only rule for reading, but the bookstore was an exempt zone.   Don't underestimate the attraction of the books.  There weren't many places to read in English.  You were conspicuous at W.H. Smith, across the street from the Tuileries, after an hour. George generously allowed me to take a book upstairs for a quiet evening. There was also the attraction of the store menagerie: Baskerville the dog and various felines.  Walking Baskerville was a favor asked of regulars and strangers alike.  "Where are you going?" George, leash in hand, would ask a departing customer. This brings me to the one occasion when I introduced my American institute friends to Shakespeare and Company. We met there one Saturday.  At George's suggestion, we found ourselves jogging behind Baskerville through the maze-like streets of the Latin Quarter.   Not exactly how we planned on spending the evening, but my friends were charmed.  Baskerville was hungry, so when we got back the manager gave us 10 francs for food.  We set off once again only this time my friends were less compliant.  "I can't believe we are doing this.  They're not even paying us."  The bookstore's customs were evidently not for everyone.   I did not know George Whitman very well.  He was an elusive figure, who stayed on the sidelines at parties, if he attended at all. The volunteers, who worked at the store in exchange for a bed, said he was mysteriously detached, even ghostly.  But he occupies a big place in my memories of that year.