RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS
28 October 2007
Shakespeare and Co., - George and Sylvia and Bill
Our photo shows George Whitman and his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman at George's world famous bookshop in Paris, France - Shakespeare & Co. The guy in the middle is, of course, Bill Clinton, who dropped by this summer. He is one of many distinguished visitors to the Left Bank bookstore--the visitor's books is signed by many a writer--Durrell, Miller, every Beat who ever published a book and wore a beret + serious celebs like Bruce Springsteen (left the comment 'a rocker and a reader') Jackie Kennedy and Johnny Depp.
A friend who was in the shop sometime in the mid 1990s was approached by a raincoated figure carrying a Russian newspaper who asked her in a flat London demotic "where's the Louvre' - it was Bowie, the thin white duke himself. At our shop (Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road) the best we can do is Michael Foot, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the late John le Mesurier (+ Quentin Tarantino and also Martin Stone tells me he once met Captain Sensible here--it doesn't get much better.) Martin, who worked for George for a while recalls meeting Francis Bacon in his shop and being taken for a meal by him at the next door restaurant La Bucherie.
What I like about this picture is George's pyjamas. You wouldn't catch the unlettered Bush or his poodle Blair posing with a beautiful young girl and an old geezer in pyjamas. The charismatic Clinton is way beyond all that. George is not the only bookseller who affects pyjamas in his shop--there is the Suffolk (Chapel Books, Westleton) bookseller Bob Jackson, no mean player when it comes to eccentricity--on cold days he wear two pairs. George of course is famous for wearing two or more pairs of trousers in the French winter. In a trade full of characters he is, definitely, at number one--his Wikipedia entry has some detail e.g. his flair for cookery-'...on Sunday mornings he cooks his guests a pancake breakfast, brewing up a thin ersatz "syrup" out of some burnt sugar and water.'
A documentary titled "Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man", by Gonzague Pichelin and Benjamin Sutherland,came out in 2005. At the end of the film George demonstrates his unique approach to hair styling by trimming his hair using flames from a candle to set his hair on fire then damping it out. A visit to Paris used to be incomplete without attending a reading at George's followed by his legendary chicken dumplings. He has been generous to many a young traveller--in the 1950s a young Beatnik--now an eminent bookseller- was given a fiver (with no expectation of repayment) by George to get back to England. Many a backpacker has crashed at the shop when funds ran out and paid for the stay with a bit of washing up or carpentry etc.,
All hail George and Sylvia and Bill! Sylvia, 22, now runs the shop, while George,90, keeps abreast of the times reading the Herald Tribune and perusing printed out emails. Sylvia now puts on a well respected annual festival --during her 2006 Literary Festival, the French Minister of Culture awarded George the "Officier des Arts et Lettres" medal for his contribution to the arts over the past fifty years. There are weekly events at the shop detailed on their Shakespeare & Co website. There are many claims on the Web that it is the most famous bookshop in the world - these would have Basil Blackwell, Christina Foyle and Tim Waterstone turning in their graves let alone Mr Barnes and Mr Noble. Let's say for the moment it is the coolest bookshop in the world.