Forbes (Dec. 28, 2011)- The idiot is missing. Or rather, a hundred “Idiots” have failed to arrive. And as Paris awakes on the shortest day of the year, there is grave concern at Shakespeare and Company at 37 rue de la Bûcherie. Dostoyevsky’s novel was supposed to be handed out to congregants at tomorrow’s funeral of the bookstore’s American founder, George Whitman, who passed away on December 14, three days after his 98th birthday. As an Irish bookseller explains to me, between patient calls to the distributor, “George felt as if it was written about him.”
Though Whitman may well have been as naïve as Dostoyevsky’s protagonist, Prince Myshkin – and, from the testimony of Anaïs Nin, as saintly – his fate was not that of the insane asylum, though bookselling might be thought of as a particular form of madness. Instead, the storefront pays homage to a man who used an odd educational provision in the G.I. Bill to stock his store and lending library (whose lease he purchased in 1951 with an inheritance of $500) and lived to see it become, inarguably, the most famous bookstore in the world.
There are photos – in the most dashing, he is dressed in a paisley jacket and tie, looking, for all the world like a psychedelic or a malnourished and goateed – and there are lengthy obituaries from the New York Times and the French newspaper, Liberation, pasted to the windows.
A young woman, in a tight fitting red hat that looks like an upturned crocus, stops with her blue suitcase and patiently reads through them in the rain. She becomes a flood as the morning wanes and tourism waxes. There are votive candles and flowers and a poem, now sodden, paying tribute to George’s “lamplighter spirit;” there are many more tributes on a large poster board inside. There will be champagne tomorrow night at the store for anyone who wants to drop by.
Shakespeare and Co. would have enjoyed a solid footnote in literary history for the writers who gathered for literary conversation not just before they were famous, but after: , , an ungracious . And it evolved into literature’s Santiago de Compostela not only for the quality of its literary pilgrims, but for the quantity that took alms and shelter under its eaves. Some 50,000 “tumbleweeds” – drifters, grifters, aspirant writers and common readers – slept above the store during Whitman’s reign in exchange for a little time working in the shop and a lot more time spent reading (slacking in the latter task would wear your welcome thin).
And then, of course, there is the name, a ménage à trois of literary bloodlines. Whitman’s store was first called le Mistral before Sylvia Beach declared, at a reading in 1958, that she was passing the name and the spirit of, her former and famed bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., to him.