A gathering place for adventurous writers like Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, William Burroughs and Lawrence Durrell among many others, Shakespeare and Company was far more than just a business, it was a breeding ground and spiritual center for literary pioneers who were drawn to the shop by its enigmatic American owner George Whitman who opened the English-language bookstore in 1951,
Whitman passed away last Wednesday at the age of 98.
He welcomed visitors with large-print messages on the walls. “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise,” was one, quoting Yeats. Next to a wishing well at the center of the store, a sign said: “Give what you can, take what you need. George.” By his own estimate, he lodged some 40,000 people.
Whitman was generous but he also had a quick temper. He was loved but his fiery disposition could be off-putting and his methods of running his business somewhat dictatorial. He was a firm believer that anyone seeking shelter in his bookstore should expect to pay their way by doing some work in the bookstore and he evidently could be a tough taskmaster, like a Zen teacher wielding a bamboo stick. This didn’t dissuade thousands of writers from making the pilgrimage to his literary Mecca. There was no bookstore quite like it.
Whitman and his extraordinary bookstore were a seminal force in the lives and careers of some of the 20th century’s greatest authors. In this documentary, Portrait Of A Bookstore As An Old Man, we are introduced to Whitman and a life touched by the marvelous.