I never met a 98 year-old man by the name of George Whitman before, but was rather inspired by the obituary The New York Times wrote in honor of him. That being said, as I will now not have the opportunity to shake his hands, I did have the chance of visiting his bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, that is situated right on the Left Bank in Paris. If the walls of this solitary book haven could talk, I'm sure it would be a classic novel in itself. Having been a familiar stop amongst literary mavens such as Hemingway and James Joyce, Whitman's Shakespeare & Company also offered refuge for traveling novelists and visiting poets.
Beyond all the stories of who laid footsteps in his bookstore, what fascinates me the most is his own personal story. Whitman was born in East Orange, N.J. and grew up in Salem, Massachusetts. His father's career often meant much traveling for Whitman and his family. Eventually, he went to Boston University and majored in journalism. After graduating, he continued to explore the world and write. His studies didn't stop there as he enrolled in Harvard, but had to change his plans once he enlisted in the army in 1941.
Whitman served until the end of WWII and despite that abrupt change of pace for his life, his journey exploring didn't. He finally settled in Paris and used his G.I Bill to start a small lending company in a hotel near the honorary Sorbonne. The rest is literary history.
Even as the humble beginnings of Shakespeare & Company eventually earned famed company to walk through its doors, it seems to have held onto such a quaint and placid vibe surrounding it.
My first recollection of any special association to a bookstore was my childhood replays of Belle singing through the villages in Beauty and the Beast. She loved that one book in that one bookshelf in what seemed as the only bookstore around. So when I finally lived in Paris for a month about 3 years ago, the travel books recommended a visit to Shakespeare & Company. The shelves were filled from top to bottom with racks of books that I've never heard of but could only imagine what mystery existed between their pages.
I did recall reading the walls that posted sayings such as "Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise" by Irish poet W.B. Yeats.
I enjoy that quote even though I might disagree with some of the stances Yeats held as an Irish public figure. I digress.
This is about a notable bookstore that came about by a man's quest for a journey and the ability to write about it. Who am I to point fingers at our human condition and the things we've said and done in the past. And that was rightfully expressed with the lifestyle of this 98 year-old man I've never met. They say he lived at the apartment right above the store. In a very odd recollection for my own sake, maybe he was hanging out in his Euro flat, sipping some earl green tea, thinking about the Jets or days gone by, all the while, a young writer from Queens stood in awe of his creation.
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