A bookstore poets call home
Paris — It's a rainy Sunday in Paris. A Hemingway fan from California State University at Long Beach sips a cup of tea poured by a poet and tells me to turn to Page 33 of "A Moveable Feast." There are plenty of copies around. I read:
In those days there was no money to buy books. I borrowed books from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l'Odeon. On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive. Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal's and as gay as a young girl's, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears and at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.m
No, I'm nt at 12 rue de l'Odeon. That legendary bookstore closed in 1941 when the Germans occupied Paris and interned Sylvia Beach. But I amm at Shakespeare and Company; that's what George Whitman, proprietor, renamed his bookstore across the Seine from the Notre Dame after Sylvia Beach passed on in 1962.
"The whole idea was, we booksellers, we're just errand boys for the writers and the leaders. Sylvia Beach used to say she was Shakespeare's errand boy, now it's my turn, pretty soon it will be someone else's turn," the small, shaggy- haired man says as he sits on a step, leaning back against one wall of books, moving his feet out of the way of customers wandering into the back chambers of the sloping-floored, scrap-carpeted, book-lined cavern that is the store's first floor.
Just as the snapshots of writers on the walls of Sylvia Beach's store made Hemingway think they had "really been alive," this newer Shakespeare and Company keeps alive the idea of the traveling writer, so unforgettably -- and romantically -- described in "A Moveable Feast." For one thing, that book is this store's best seller, along with the collected works of Shakespeare, which sit in a shiny stack in the front window, like the season's latest literary bombshell. The place seems to attract more people who have read "A Moveable Feast" than Shakespeare scholars, though. And whether they liked the book or not, many of them are approaching Paris and Europe from as Hemingwayesque a point of view as is possible in the '80s. That is to say, with prices a lot higher and most of the cafes already described in one lost- generation novel or another.
At least there is still someone as kind, in a bookish way, as Sylvia Beach. Shakespeare and Company is homey and full of the kind of books a certain type of traveler likes to read. A lot of them are used. Their tattered dull red and blue covers have a shabby warmth under the outlandish chandelier that pierces the rainy gloom and is a comforting, elderly presence in the front room, like an old set of moose antlers or maybe some long-unused snowshoes up on the wall.
And if you are a traveling writer, or even a traveling reader, and George Whitman likes the looks of you, he may put you up, free, in the upstairs rooms for a week or so. About 12 people can take refuge up there among even more books.* Writers are only asked to make their beds, others wash dishes, make tea, and help out.
"In the year 1600, this was a monastery called 'La Maison des Mustiers,'" Whitman says. "I like to pretend that I am the sole surviving monk. In the middle ages, each monastery had a monk called the frere lampier. He was the monk who lit the lamps. It's a very modest role I play. . . . I'm the frere lampier," Whitman says.
The resemblance to the monastery is not just imaginary anymore. With proceeds from the books, he has been buying up the apartments in the building.
"We've gradually bought up three stores and we're running them together, and we've gradually bought up three apartments, so little by little, we're reconstituting the monastery, but somewhat in the form of a socialist utopia," he says.
The day I visited, itinerants from all over were busy putting in a bathroom in the newly acquired third floor apartment for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was due in Paris for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of his own City Lights bookstore at Paris's American Center and a reading at Shakespeare and Company.
The store once put up poet Allen Ginsberg, I am informed by a young man in the upper room where I read newspaper clippings, letters from literary lions and cubs addressed to George, and the approximately 7,000 brief autobiographies he has asked his visitors to write.
A young man over from England before starting his first year at Oxford is enconced in a red leather armchair, reading. Over his shoulder you can see Notre Dame. Allen Ginsberg gave his first poetry reading here, I am further informed. My informat does not want his name used. He is working on a novel, staying here with his wife.Though he isn't helping with the bathroom (writers, you will recall, aren't supposed to work), he is summoned often to go to the third floor and hear the complaints of the woman who lives in the other apartment there, who says sawdust is coming in her window and after all, it's Sunday and they shouldn't be making so much noise. He is valued because the lady finds him a very gentle young man, she says, probably only partly because he doesn't understand French himself.
Mostly, he says, he is here because he is fascinated with George.
George is a great storyteller. I ask him how it was that he was so kind to travelers. He told me that he graduated from Boston University in journalism, but instead of working for a newspaper, he decided he wanted "to travel around, spend seven years walking around the world on foot." He walked from Mexico City to Panama, he says, stopping to work in British Honduras.
"Well, you know, walking on foot from Mexico to Panama can be a lonely business at times. For example, I left British Honduras with a bunch of people to start a revolution in Spanish Honduras. . . ." They dropped him at Puerto Cortez, and he walked through the jungle on a narrow-gauge banana railway, he narrates.
"Two weeks I was traveling through the jungle. I never see human beings. No one.No people. I just see herds of wild pigs. They're very dangerous. They're not afraid of people, they just walk right by, pay no attention, they just look at you with their evil eyes. And deer, deer all around, and sometimes these little wild tigers, jaguars, which follow me out of curiosity. They almost never attack people. But they're curious about them."
Here the young lady at the cash register, who has been listening, lets out a laugh of incredulity. This does not even dent the story. He continues.
"So, a couple of weeks without human beings, then, when I crossed into Guatemala, I just lay in a field, just to be near a lighted window, to hear music, human voices, you know. But it was a mistake, because a bunch of soldiers came and took me, and marched me to prison! Happened a couple of times like that in Guatemala. . . . How did we get onto that?
"Well, the point is that sometimes you're lonely. Sometimes you're lonely, so I could never find a place like this so I had to make one."
So it was that, after getting out of the Army (he spent two years in Greenland) and starting a little bookstore in Taunton, Mass., and trying to come to Paris to help run a camp for war orphans, and being held up by the State Department because he was a member of the Young Communist League, he finally did come to Paris. Too late to help the orphanage, "but I liked it here, so I just took a little diploma at the Sorbonne and opened a bookstore."
The rest is history, and no doubt part of many travelers' stories and memories of writers like Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Alan Sillitoe, and other less- well-known but serious writers who have passed through.
Upstairs, as everyone reads or drinks tea or works on Ferlinghetti's bathroom , I page through albums of letters from George's admirers.
"If I run into anyone who deserves it, I will send him to your haven for writers," a note from Anais Nin says. But the spirit the place encourages is best summed up in a one-line autobiography:
"I am in love with a nice girl named Jeannie who writes poetry and I live."