Parisian home offers board to would-be writers
Paris — The gathering took place in winter on the fourth floor of a small house in the shadow of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This is the home of Shakespeare and Company, an American bookstore on the Left Bank with a reputation for good food as well as good books.
George Whitman, the bookstore's owner, a man with shining blue eyes and a wispy outcropping of ginger hair on his chin, looked like a picture of Ezra Pound as he cooked a big pot of food for friends and members of his ''writer's co-op.''
Any self-proclaimed writer can stay at Shakespeare and Company for one week if he or she helps with daily chores in the bookstore, mopping floors, running errands, or just minding the store. In exchange Mr. Whitman will give an aspiring writer a place to unfurl a sleeping bag and a daily meal.
On this occasion, a cold winter night, the evening repast included a huge caldron of chowder and an immense chunk of meat loaf, to which he added some finely chopped apples to ''give it a little zip and make it moister,'' he explained.
There were a salad, a platter of brownies, and a dozen baked apples accompanied by chestnut puree and whipped creme fraiche, into which a bit of lemon juice was added, again ''for zip.''
Like Sylvia Beach, owner of the original Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman is a New Englander. He spent summers with his grandmother in Norway, Maine, and thus considers chowders part of his culinary heritage.
As a young man he attended Boston University and Harvard, then did some vagabonding before World War II. He had planned to walk around the world, he says, but the war caught up with him while he was walking through Panama.
After the war and a short stint in the Sorbonne, he used a small inheritance from a New England relative to buy a bankrupt Arabian grocery store on the Rue des Boucheries, in the shadow of Notre Dame. He then opened his bookstore, which he called La Mistral.
In 1964, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, he decided to rename the bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Sylvia Beach, whose original Shakespeare and Company had been forced to close during World War II and never reopened, gave her blessings and some of her first editions to Mr. Whitman.
Since the store is frequently staffed by young American writers enjoying their week of writer's co-op privileges, the usual method of finding a book is just to browse for it. Often this search results in the discovery of several books one isn't looking for, with the object of the original mission soon forgotten.
But hospitality seems to be the most important merchandise offered here. During his vagabonding days, Mr. Whitman says, he realized that ''hospitality is one of the world's great virtues,'' a virtue with which he is heartily blessed.
The chowder was fairly traditional except for one ingredient. First a big potful of mussels was cooked with onions and potatoes for the broth. Several pounds of ground fish - possibly the French equivalent of monkfish - were briefly cooked separately.
When ready to serve, the fish went into the larger pot with the mussels, then powdered milk, until the grayish liquid turned creamy white. Chunks of butter were dropped in last.
When you walk into Shakespeare and Company, one of the first things you see is a sign that says, ''To those who cherish freedom, practice equality, and seek justice, welcome. We wish our guests to enter with the feeling they have inherited a book-lined apartment on the Seine which is all the more delightful because they share it with others.''
Under the guidance of George Whitman, there is food to be shared along with the books.