In 2005, the Sundance Channel aired Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man, a 52 minute documentary that pays homage to George Whitman, the American founder of the most famous independent bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company. Whitman died yesterday, at age 98, in his apartment above the store.
Sylvia Beach first opened a bookshop named Shakespeare and Company in 1918, and it soon became a home for artists of the “Lost Generation” (Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald, Stein, etc.). It also famously published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. The shop eventually closed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Yet a good decade later, George Whitman came along and established another English-language bookstore on the Left Bank and eventually rechristened it Shakespeare and Company. Whitman’s shop gave sanctuary to Beat writers – Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and the rest. And it’s this incarnation of the fabled bookstore that the documentary takes as its subject. Give the documentary some time, and be sure to watch the last five minutes – unless you already know how to cut your hair with fire. It will give you a little feel for Whitman and his well-known eccentricities. RIP.