Art and the philosophy of life


Almost finished with it, just a few more pages.  I skipped some of the beginning because it’s about George Whitman’s early life and I don’t really care about that.  I’m more interested in the bookstore, than in his travels around the world as a young man.  The kindness shown to him by strangers, while he did travel around the world, made him the open and generous person he became and that was good enough for me.  There are a few pages about Sylvia Beach, the woman who opened the original Shakespeare and Company.

There is a comic strip in the beginning of the book about Sylvia Beach and Hemingway. The story, according to Hemingway’s bio,  is supposed to be false.  He did drive up to the shop, after the war, and he did scream for Sylvia but she had moved and did not run down the stairs  and fall into his arms.  I don’t know which story is true but after reading about all the lies Hemingway constantly told, it’s hard to believe anything he ever said.

George Whitman was a character, to put it mildly.  Single minded and a man with a vision.  A vision he made come true.

The book is a actually a giant scrapbook, filled with pictures, letters, art, poems, biographies of the Tumbleweeds (those who stayed at the shop, for whatever length of time, and had to write a bio as the price of staying there…they also had to work in the shop a couple hours a day). The book consists of bits and pieces of Whitman’s life and the life of the shop.   Calls for stories from friends, artists, writers, poets, customers and Tumbleweeds went out to everyone, and their stories and memories are part of the book and add to the overall understanding of the shop under George’s reign.

Shakespeare and Company is fun and beautifully made.  The layout is whimsical, with different colored pages, fonts, and surprises popping up here and there.  The paper is thick and tough, kind of like the bookstore itself.  George’s daughter Sylvia, named after Sylvia Beach, runs the shop today.  Her life as a child, living in the bookstore, must have been interesting beyond belief.

Sylvia Beach and George Whitman, the person she allowed to use the name Shakespeare and Company, were more than just booksellers, they were in love with, and passionate about, literature, learning, sharing, mentoring, and gathering knowledge, to pass on to others.  They were generous beyond belief and constantly gave of themselves to the creative community.

Shakespeare and Company is a unique and magical place (cats live there).  It’s impossible for those who love the bookstore, to see past the glamour, to the actual bricks and mortar.  The magic has been created by the people who love the shop and it has become alive and real.  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit twice but the second you leave, you long to return.  The books call to us, the pages, flaunt their printed words, flash their drawings, whisper their poetry.  All the conversations, the stories, that have taken place within it’s walls have soaked into the wood and plaster and keep the magic going.  It’s a place where the people, customers and staff alike, truly want to BE there. That’s the real magic of Shakespeare and Company…you never want to leave, you never want to be anywhere but there.

See, franchise bookstores have no heart.  They don’t carefully hand pick books with love, they have stock and diagrams that show there where the books HAVE to be set up.  No individuality or thinking outside the box.  The people who work in franchise shops are doing their jobs, not dedicating their lives to books. They don’t own the store, it’s not their life, they just work there.  The difference can be felt.  Sylvia Beach and George Whitman were their bookshops.  The shops were an extension of themselves and that’s what makes the difference.   They made the choices and decisions about the shop and their books, not some corporate, nameless, faceless drones.

George’s daughter brought Shakespeare and Company up to date.  She put in a PHONE, computer, etc., made some physical and extremely necessary improvements, but she kept the soul and bones of the place.  I can’t wait to see the cafe when I go there next time.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone who is interested in stories about George Whitman and Shakespeare and Company from 1919 to the present day.  The thing is, the book is written by others. Even Whitman’s notes are to himself, not to us, so there’s a little something cool and detached about the book. Like looking in from the outside.  George Whitman never speaks to us directly, so we only get to know him through the words of other people.  I would have liked to have read what he was thinking when he was making his dream come true.


To know the original Shakespeare and Company first hand, there is only one book and it’s this one…written by Sylvia Beach herself.  It’s truly wonderful.  I highly recommend it to anyone who loves this bookstore.  She was an incredible woman.  A superhero who made a real difference in the world. img_6756

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