DECEMBER 12, 1913 – DECEMBER 14, 2011
George Whitman, a legendary American bookseller in Paris, passed away today in the apartment above his landmark bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. For 60 years, the shop has offered a crammed-to-the-rafters selection of English language books in a charming corner of the Left Bank, and crammed it still further with beds for visiting writers, or anyone in need who was willing to put in hours working the register (see last photo, above).
George was a generous host and committed shop owner who understood what books, and the places that serve them, could mean, and do mean to people. I was thinking of George just the other day while reading an interview with Amazon head Jeff Bezos, who said "Our version of a perfect customer experience is one in which our customer doesn’t want to talk to us. Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect." How different from George's motto, written in tall letters on a wall in the shop: "Be not inhospitable to strangers / Lest they be angels in disguise". Whitman's approach was hands-on and life-enhancing, just as books should be. Thankfully, his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, continues the tradition. A good overview of the shop narrated by Sylvia can be seen here.