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Creative Inspiration in a Paris Bookstore

by Meredith Mullins on December 6, 2012

Creative inspiration from Shakespeare and Company, a Paris bookstore

Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris
© Meredith Mullins

Paying Tribute to Shakespeare and Company and George Whitman

“Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”

As you climb the sunken wooden stairs to the second floor of Shakespeare and Company bookstore, close enough to feel the vibrations of the Notre Dame belltower just across the Seine, you are confronted with a carefully lettered moment of philosophy . . . and a reminder of how owner George Whitman lived his life.

There are plenty of stories about the wild-haired and eccentric George and about the legacy of creative inspiration at Shakespeare and Company—the most famous English-language bookstore in Paris (and perhaps the world).

Whitman’s Inspiration

Most people would agree that George lived life exactly how he wanted. He created his bookstore in 1951, and it soon became a literary haven and creative inspiration for some of the best expat and visiting writers of the time (including Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Beckett, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, James Baldwin).

He supported writers and readers with access to English-language books and good conversation, hosted readings and book launches, and gave writers a kick in the pants when they needed it.

Creative inspiration from inscription above Shakespeare and Company door

Shakespeare and Company 2nd Floor
© Meredith Mullins

He lent books, cared little about money, had a tyrannical temper, but most of all was a socialist at heart, with a generous spirit at his core. He called Shakespeare and Company “a socialist Utopia disguised as a bookstore.”

He had a beautiful daughter when he was 68 (who now runs the shop, with charisma and charm), and he enjoyed the company of friends and admirers (young and old) until he died. He cut his hair by setting fire to it (easier and faster, he said). Every Sunday, he hosted conversation and tea in his top floor apartment and often held impromptu gatherings on the terrace outside the shop.

Even at his 97th birthday party, he sat in a throne-like easy chair amidst his friends and admirers and read the paper (his favorite pastime), oblivious to the hoopla around him.

George Whitman's 97th Birthday Party at Shakespeare and Company, a Paris bookstore offering creative inspiration

George Whitman at his 97th Birthday Party
© Meredith Mullins

Inside the Legendary Bookstore

The hard benches in the antiquarian room and other cubbyholes throughout the maze of books became beds for more than 50,000 aspiring writers and rambling adventurers over the years, although this “open house” came with rules.

You had to write something before being allowed in.

You had to read a book a day.

And you had to work a few hours in the shop.

Mostly, you had to think—keep your mind alive and curious.

Creative inspiration from Shakespeare and Company steps saying Live for Humanity

OIC: Live for Humanity
© Meredith Mullins

The labyrinthian store winds its way around many messages that lead to Oh, I see moments:

  • The time-layered steps to the back rooms deliver the subtle inspiration “Live for Humanity,” if you happen to be looking down as you step up.
  • The wishing well—a place for coins tossed with hopes and dreams— says “Give what you can, take what you need.”
  • Outside the store, George told his story on a chalkboard that says, “Some people call me the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter because my head is so far up in the clouds that I can imagine all of us are angels in paradise.”


Whitman’s Legacy

George’s birthday is next week (December 12). He would have been 99 this year. He passed away last year, two days after his 98th birthday.

“I may disappear leaving no forwarding address, but for all you know I may still be walking among you on my vagabond journey around the world.”

Creative inspiration from Sylvia and George Whitman at Shakespeare and Company

George Whitman and his daughter Sylvia (2008)
© Meredith Mullins

George left more than a personal legacy of individuality and dedication to an ideal. He left an inspiration for living life with generosity and meaning. He believed we have certain inalienable rights:  friends, paper pages, the smell of library (and liberty), and the incredible journeys that thoughtful conversation and good writing can take us on.

Long live bookstores that give life to the written word, inspire thoughtful conversation, and embrace the creative spirit.

Long live the idea that strangers may be angels in disguise.

Long live the legacy of George Whitman.

Happy Birthday, George! Thank you for so many OIC moments. May you walk among us for a long time to come.

One of my favorite YouTube videos of all time is George “cutting his hair” with a candle, accompanied by his own poetry (“the good, the beautiful, the true”  . . .  and, of course, the smell of burning hair).

Read the George Whitman obituary in the NY Times from December 2011.

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