by Rob Couteau
Normally at this time of year, George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company is thriving with activity: poetry readings; lively exchanges between guests; travelers who arrive, often with no more than a backpack, and offer an hour of work in exchange for nightly lodging. In the aftermath of last month’s fire, however, travelers are forced to seek shelter elsewhere. While events at the bookshop continue, they do so at a greatly diminished scale. Electrical outlets have yet to be repaired, so customers arrive with flashlights to navigate the darkened rear-section of the store. Up front, the large plate-glass windows permit enough street-level illumination for the operation to continue only until sunset, instead of the usual midnight hour. Readings are organized on the pavement outside, with the blaring traffic along quai de Montebello providing a harsh accompaniment.
Habitués continue to make do with such inconveniences, but a lingering sense of loss pervades the atmosphere. Hundreds of books, many of them signed first editions, were destroyed. On the afternoon of the fire, a small crowd watched with dismay as firemen heaped a waist-high mound of debris–including books with edges singed or bindings burned away–into a cordoned-off area. By early evening, the damaged collection lay victim to a scavenging crowd wading through clutter while hundreds of pages of the most diverse assortment of literature imaginable lined the gutters of rue de la Bûcherie and fluttered across the street toward the hulking towers of Notre-Dame.
What’s unusual about Shakespeare and Company, and therefore particularly tragic about the fire, is that Whitman has opened up both his home and his invaluable library to the world. For forty years he’s invited travelers to eat, sleep, and read in his establishment, gratis. In the process, he’s gained the sympathy of many in the writer’s community, who donate not only their own works but also the literature of others whom they feel have made valuable but not always well-known contributions. Amassing this kind of collection is important, because books fall out of print, disappear, and vanish without leaving a trace.
Whitman’s idea was to create a preserve where eccentric minds could exchange passions and interests. Unlike the American Consulate’s Benjamin Franklin Library, which recently phased out their literary collection in order to concentrate on politics and social science, or the American Library in Paris, which charges over 400 francs a year, Whitman’s collection, while remaining well-rounded, emphasizes literary works and is free to all.
A gruff, cantankerous, wiry old proprietor, Whitman identifies himself as an American expat who refuses to fit into any customary mold. Barking commands, hurling invectives, lecturing his fellow Americans about the evils of multinational corporations or the injustices of the legal system (“Justice! There is no justice in America!”), his hodgepodge of erudition and wit can also be charming and benevolent. (One student categorized him as a “charitable misanthrope.”) Providing more than just shelter for young international travelers–many of whom could not otherwise afford a stay, even briefly, in Paris–he’s caused more than one victim of the school system to suddenly appreciate the world of literature. Many arrive just for the free lodging but then, during their visit–sleeping in one of the book-lined rooms or overhearing a passionate exchange between bibliophiles–catch on to the larger dimensions of such unfamiliar terrain. Although most of the more established writers tend to shy away from utilizing the premises because of the chaos, dust, and disorder, the sprawling uncataloged collection serves as an exemplary setting for the young, unformed initiate.
Once the electricity returns and structural repairs are complete, the library and several other rooms will again be accessible to the public. These include:
- The undamaged rear-section of the library, containing nineteenth- and twentieth-century world literature, history, and politics.
- The resident writer’s room, which houses first editions of fiction and poetry.
- The fourth-floor apartment where Whitman lives, which provides additional shelter for guests, and which hosts Sunday afternoon tea parties (open to all).
Besides a collection of the classics, Whitman maintains an archive of letters from writers such as Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and Allen Ginsberg. In addition, a six-foot-high stack of multicolored scrapbooks leaning against a wall in his bedroom bears testimony to the thousands who have passed through as overnight guests. They contain scrawled biographies; photographs; drawings; and poems.
On the day of the catastrophe, while firemen draped waterproofed canvas over tables piled high with bright new paperbacks–trying to protect them from streams of water cascading from upstairs–Whitman maintained a stoic facade. He seemed impervious, even to gestures of sympathy from customers who had broken through a police cordon to offer support. Already planning his next move, he reopened the store the following afternoon and organized a volunteer work crew that had assembled to cart off an enormous pile of debris. Several well-wishers squeezed donations of money into his hand; others arrived with new books and periodicals for the library.
While the library remains a charred shell, contributions continue to trickle in. Donations to Shakespeare and Company are welcomed.