Angels in Disguise at Shakespeare and Company
In Praise of George Whitman, Mad Saint of Bookstores
The following appears as a single edition from Paravion Press, the inaugural essay in their “Firsts” series.
When I first arrived at Shakespeare & Company, carrying a small suitcase and without a key to any door on earth, I knew the place was famous. I knew Shakespeare & Company had published Ulysses in 1922, and how both before and since, the name had housed an English language bookstore on the Left Bank, through which had flowed the great writers of the day: from Hemingways and Pounds to Becketts, Durrells, Corsos, Nins et al. When George took me in that night, I still didn’t have a key, and wouldn’t for weeks, but I felt I had entered through the gates of literature.
As things turned out, over my time there (roughly 2000 to 2003), I met relatively few famous writers. Ferlinghetti did stop by at Christmas. And I held one time a brief conversation with the widow of Richard Wright, in which she castigated me—justly—for not knowing the French for widow (she had entered the store, set herself square on the tiles, and pronounced, Je suis la veuve de Richard Wright ). But mostly, if famous writers came to Paris in those days, they went to WH Smith or The Village Voice. Those were the places that had a telephone, and could get in copies of their books for them to read from, sign, and sell. For the most part, famous writers stayed away from Shakespeare & Company. It was too disorganized to deal with professionally, and to stay there, as George would insist they should, it was too full of cockroaches, and unfamous writers. Those were the ones I talked to the most during my time there, and it was they who marked me the deepest. Which is why I want to write about them here.
The people hanging out around the bookstore at that time could be loosely carved into groups. Most prominent perhaps were the young good-looking kids who were either traveling around Europe and sleeping under the shelves, or had run ashore from their adventures in Paris and, now furtively resident, would visit the store for company. They were all literary types, often of the aspirational kind, busy touching the nibs of their pens to the opening of some great unwritten American novel. Though they would, just for tonight, screw their pen lids back on, and go out drinking with each other—because both they and the night felt too much like the opening of some great unwritten American novel to let them go to waste. As writers, they drank and smoked as few who drink and smoke so much are able realistically to write. But they read to each other, and kissed, and fell in and out of love, and in and out of Paris. They were, more than anything perhaps, hungrily reading the uncut signatures of themselves. They were the tumbleweeds of Tumbleweed Hotel, and for all their preposterous and well-thumbed dreams, there was something resplendent about them. Because they were young and sexy, and because they had both dreams, and the courage to haul their dreams up into the days they—albeit briefly—lived in. And for this, George gave them beds.
The young dreamers wove a scrolling tapestry of scenes about Shakespeare & Company which depicted them variously: down by Pont Neuf with bottles of wine, in Café Panis or Polly Magoo’s, or in the store’s Russian section, or Art or History, or in the writing cubbyhole next to the sink. And here and there among them would appear older dreamers. These were literary types too, though the years of dreaming they’d put in had woven and rewoven them with a subtly different kind of silk. Gathered together, they formed a second group of bookstore people.
Like their younger counterparts, the older dreamers had either shored up in Paris, or were passing through and sojourning in the store. George would send them upstairs to lodgings of greater prestige: a brass bed, and a bathtub surrounded by curling photographs in wooden frames (while the tumbleweeds would roll together in a pile below). As writers they were rarely very established, and perhaps not all that published—or at least, not in any great commercial capacity, and not by major houses. Nor even were they very sexy, though they were, much to the distress of the sexy kids, not infrequently quite sexual in their literary imaginations (What? Older people think about sex too! Aieaieaie!). I remember a poetry reading given one time by a weathered hippie with a gray beard and an indigo headband, in which he explained, with exceptional gentleness, how the poem he was about to read was written in Spain, concerning the afternoon he and his friends had been walking down a mountainside, and, as they descended, they had become—quite naturally—naked, and started making paintings with different parts of their bodies. He had painted one, which had seemed just so beautiful, using the end of his penis. On the subject of which, these lines… On another occasion, a mature woman produced a short story of a robustly explicit nature involving a ragged Left Bank bookseller and—who but?—a diaphanously veiled mature woman. And so on.
These unestablished writers fell all over the map in terms of style, interests, erudition, and form, though all shared being quite far out. It was a community of fringes, and while their writing may not have been very proficiently executed with respect to a target market, as an expression of human emotion in words, it was almost never without sincerity, nor without the power that comes when any living presence is captured in a work of art, no matter how cobble-stitched or personal. They weren’t bouncing around on BBC Radio 4, and I doubt they could have bounced with much welcome into WH Smith or The Village Voice to read there, but they were undiscovered gems of their kind. How many of them will, like Melville or William Blake or the Gawain poet, be unearthed in some forgotten attic in a future century, or pulled from a box on the banks of the Seine and vaulted thence into the canon (as some indeed liked to think or dream), is yet to be seen. The canon’s gates often require keys that are a great deal more arbitrary—and perchance quixotic—in shape than its exponents generally like to think. But perhaps whether this happens or not isn’t so important or is important only in so far as you believe the purpose of writing is to sell books (either in your own lifetime or beyond). But the point about the older dreamers was that they were, in their life choices, and in the bonds they’d made and the words they’d written, people who society in some sense didn’t get. But George did. He got them, and gave them a place to be writers, while many others, for all the decades they’d put in, barely had or did. And George got them best of all, because George too was someone who society didn’t really get.
George’s levels of non-socialized behavior are legendary. He’d store thousands of francs in second-hand books, only to put them down and wander off. Or if he remembered, he’d thrust them into the hands of near strangers to go and pay in for him. His haphazard treatment of cash was due in no small part to his hatred of being inside a bank. In fact, and for all his avowed communism, he hated having anything to do with anything that smacked of institutions or bureaucracy. His response to what was required of him by regulators was a complex mixture of subterfuge, evasion and intransigence. For the accounting, we had a Dickensian system of large square-ruled ledgers which at the end of each month we’d fill in together in pencil, making the numbers up from the bottom. Until I got good enough at it for him to trust me to make them up alone, and hardly have to touch the ledgers himself. The beleaguered accountant we passed them to was left no doubt wiping his glasses, and tearing what was left of his hair. When fire inspectors or health and safety assessors came around, George, fully improbably, couldn’t speak French. And while some of this was tactical, he really wasn’t bluffing. He had been shut down in the past by the French authorities, and was under no illusion it couldn’t happen again, or that the game was all in his hands. Rather, in an important and inescapable sense, it was impossible for George to run a bookstore in the way that places like Waterstones do. By which I mean, he genuinely couldn’t maintain “proper” accounting, or “proper” electrics and plumbing, or even mount bookshelves that weren’t all in varying stages of unsalvageable collapse. The only way George could build things was with odd nails and old pieces of string—and string which he wouldn’t even have bought. He would have found it on a street somewhere, or more likely, he’d have gone specially to the markets where vendors cut it from their deliveries and toss it out, and where George would snatch it up, run back, and use it to bind both his bookstore and his life together.
For all that George was eccentric, as well as, by turns, hilarious, cantankerous, mischievous, sweet, exploitative, perverse, capricious and hugely hugely generous, and—though he surrounded himself with people—more shy than many recognized or thought, he was all these things not by posture, but inveterately so. And as such, he was someone who was magnificently unable do the things that society, quite reasonably perhaps, would ask and expect of him. And yet he’d figured out a way to make things work for him. It was the brightest element of his sparkling genius, and the first lesson many of us learned from him.
George, and the bookstore he invented, were an astonishing source of inspiration for the bales of young dreamers who tumbled through. I don’t know how many have gone on to become famous writers, and the typical accusation that these were middle class kids playing for a period at living on twenty francs a day, before going back to their middle class homes, was mostly accurate. But contact with the bookstore exposed them to a different universe, and it changed a lot of them. They arrived as people who at least weren’t quite ready to enter a conventional mainstream, and were maybe wondering if at some point they actually would fit in a little better, and then they saw George, and saw in him how it was possible to be someone who society really didn’t get (after all, who does it get?), and yet still figure a way through. It was a lesson in how to build a life without following everything the world can immediately think up for you to do or say, and as such, it was immensely powerful. Through it the bookstore has seeded and born fruit in its own innumerable ways: literary magazines, small presses, theater groups, dance companies, arts initiatives, bands, community enterprises, cafés, creative think tanks, NGOs, non-profits and unorthodox noncorporate ventures of all kinds, as well as, of course, independent bookstores, have, quite literally in their thousands, and all over the world, been touched by George—either through inspired tumbleweeds going on to found them, or going out and getting involved. And for every one of them, the world is a more interesting place. It’s something George gave it, and as a legacy, it’s every bit as wonderful as the more fabled moments when one or another 20th-century literary great stumble into the store, and bummed a cigarette off whoever was on the till.
For the literary non-greats, the older dreamers, awaiting their discovery, or quietly growing older without needing it, the lesson was less one of entrepreneurial zeal than of soft spaces. These were people who were already making their own unconventional way through life. Not a few had been younger dreamers, and had been touched by George decades previously. What the bookstore gave to them now was a continuing means to go on being who they were. It was one in a network of places and communities that made it possible for them to exist on the fringe, and for their existence to be acknowledged. And whether bad writers or good, the world is more interesting place for each of them too. For one, on a strategic level, the world can’t afford to narrow its bets as to who the great writers really are, or will turn out to be. And for another, in offering them an occasional yet deeply true home, the bookstore stayed true to itself.
But there was a third group of people I met at Shakespeare & Company, and who too lent their threads to the tapestry. They were neither young and bursting with promise, nor older and unsuccessfully writerly, but generally known as “the crazies”. And the crazies, as crazy people do, reached from end to end of a bewildering spectrum. There were the bums I’d buy second-hand books from; the homeless people who’d cadge the odd night there; and the alcoholics who’d hit George up for one of the big bottles of Tsingtao he’d distribute at his impromptu banquets between the cherry trees. There were the junkies who’d come to steal cash from the cash-filled books George would leave lying around (and for every Burroughs, there are countless junkies who don’t have that talent, and are just powerlessly fucked up). And in greatest numbers of all, there were the people who weren’t obviously any of these things, but who would come simply because they didn’t have anyone much to talk to—maybe because they didn’t have family, or maybe they’d left them behind, and at any rate, they were bad at making friends precisely because they were too crazy for anyone to want to talk to them. Not crazy enough to be put away, but enough for most people to want to shut them out. I spent hours talking to them, less with willing than because, during my shifts, I was effectively nailed to the desk. But thinking back, I’ve come to learn it was one of the better things I did with my Paris hours.
Because they were, like all people, social, and needed someone to talk to, just to know that they were there. And George never kicked them out. For all those around him would implore him to, and myself at times included, George never got rid of them—no matter all the awful or embarrassing things they’d say or do, or how little they understood him. He just didn’t seem to mind. Which was extraordinary. It was a form of genius perhaps rarer and more profound than the others he displayed, though its colors are for the most part less well flown.
A deal almost everyone works with almost all of the time goes something like this: if you want to get some understanding out of me, I need to see some understanding out of you. But for George, this rule was barely there, if at all. If you’d been kicked out of everywhere else, and the world had for the most part told you to go hang, because you weren’t very adept at comprehending either what the world, or even what the person you were talking to right now, thought you should say or do next, you could still go to the bookstore. It was a place that at times was less like a literary salon, in truth, than a congregation of misfits and oddballs in ardent conversation, all pursuing parallel trains of illogical excess. And it was a home to them too.
George used to say, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” It is a beautiful line, and in reference to an artists’ haven, the implications are clear: don’t risk turning away a van Gogh or a Kafka, lest they be an artistic genius, with a deep and complex soul, albeit in outward appearance no more than an awkward and ugly failure. But the truth about angels is that, on some level, they’ll always be ok. Because if you’re an angel, bookstore or no, God is looking out for you. And with Kafka, for example, however little he was recognized throughout his lifetime, I believe he always knew somewhere he was touched by God—in so far as that word means anything—because he knew he could write. And for that reason alone perhaps, he did. But what if you’re not an angel, and there’s manifestly no disguise? What if you haven’t a soul that in secret spreads its angel’s wings to write or paint, safe somewhere in the knowledge that it will later be drawn back into the folds of love and praise? But still you have a soul, because you’re a person, and that’s what people have. A person and a soul you’ve kicked around with for years, being generally rejected, and with little delusion of anything much else to come. Such people came to Shakespeare & Company.
And the lesson I learned, improperly at the time, but which I’ve been learning from George over the years ever since, is something he never said, but that sang through all the things he did: “Be not inhospitable to strangers, because strange or crazy as they may be, and however lacking in disguise, strangers are people too. Like you. Like me.”
A printed edition of this essay can be purchased from Paravion Press at a 25 percent discount, with the coupon code LITHUB.