Angel in Disguise

Frank Sinatra and I shared a mutual acquaintance.  Let me explain.

Just across the Seine from Notre Dame is a little bookshop tucked in a corner on the rue de la Bûcherie. Outside are wooden bins with all sorts of books.  A tall postcard carousel sits near the door with images of famous authors and scenes from the bookshop itself for sale.  You know when you walk up that this place is just…special.  There’s a quaintness about it.  It’s like you stumbled onto some old books in your grandparent’s attic and can’t wait to dive in to them to see what secrets you’ll discover.

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As you step through the glass door, you realize that this place is tiny…or so it seems.  But as you work your way around the front room, you realize there is a back room and then a room beyond that and around the corner, another room.  You keep going like this until you realize that the shop isn’t tiny in terms of square footage, but it is literally packed, floor to ceiling, with books.  All are English language books, unique for a Paris bookshop.  Stranger yet, tucked among the homemade book shelves are bunks for sleeping.  No, not for customers, for aspiring writers.

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Named for the Bard, Shakespeare and Company has existed in this location since the 1950’s.  It was opened by one George Whitman, reputed to be related to Walt, but how never seems quite clear.  During my first visit, George sat at the wrap around desk in the front room.  He was perfectly situated to greet everyone who came into the shop.  He was also the man you paid if you wanted to take home a souvenir.  For every book he sold, he would open the front cover and stamp the inside with the name of the shop.  Almost the act a librarian would take in the old days when you checked out a book.  You know, back when they had a “due date” they’d stamp on the check out card in the back of each book?

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The building in which the shop is housed dates to the 17th century and was once a monastery.  George named the shop after an earlier version of it opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919.  The original was in a different location, but the elite of the literary scene at the time, used it as a gathering place.  Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Eliot are just a few who would frequent the shop in those days.  In fact, Sylvia Beach would be the original publisher of Ulysses.  She would also be the person that George named his only child after.

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George opened his shop with the same spirit in mind – he wanted a place where writers could crash while they made their way in a profession that is unkind to beginners.  His motto was “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” – and he lived it. For decades, young writers have spent time on a cot in George’s shop.  They help out in the shop in exchange for a place to stay, along with being required to read a book per day and write an autobiography.  Some only stay a few days, others, years.  It is estimated that almost thirty thousand have passed through these doors.  Ethan Hawke and Geoffrey Rush among them.

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Another visitor was Frank Sinatra. In 2014 Vanity Fair published an article about Shakespeare and Company.  In it they share a story relayed by Ed Walters, former pit boss at the Sands in Vegas:

What few Sinatra fans know is that he loved books, especially history books. He was in the casino at a 21 table, playing blackjack and talking with his friends. He told the guys, “I’m giving Eddie some books to educate him. He needs it.”

He asked about a book he’d given me, was I reading it. He said, “Eddie you must travel and when you do, go to Paris, go to the Shakespeare bookstore. I know the guy there. . . . Go see the guy George—he’s a guy that lives with the books.”

I knew George too…or at least I felt like I did.  On that first visit, he invited my friend and I to go upstairs and join his “party.”  We went so far as climbing two flights of stairs and walking to the cracked door of his living quarters.  Sure enough, the room was full of people talking and laughing.  They invited us to have some soup they were making, but we decided to pass.  Everyone in the room was young – most likely the current occupants of the cots scattered throughout the shop.

I’ve often wondered what would it have been like if we’d stayed that day. By the time of my next visit to Paris and Shakespeare and Company, George was gone, dying two days after his 98th birthday.

Rest in peace George and know that everyone who has and will pass through your shop is forever grateful.

All photos by the author.

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