Remembering George Whitman

12/15/2011 01:39 pm ET | Updated Feb 14, 2012

Years ago, back in the early eighties after reading too much Henry Miller to do a woman any good, I found myself in Paris, squatting in an old and dusty room above the legendary booksellers, Shakespeare & Company. Not the Shakespeare & Co of Sylvia Beach and her salons, but the Revised Edition of Shakespeare & Co., an entirely different store across from the Notre Dame, and under ownership of a goofy old soul, George Whitman.
George was already nearly ancient way back then, at least in the eyes of my youth, but he had the spirit of a prankster and the heart of a gentle clown -- not to mention the temper of a tyrant every now and then. His two-year-old daughter Sylvia played among the books and kept him chasing after her (and kept the gossip whizzing -- when an old goat like that has a child so young, who knows what other tricks he's got up his sleeve?), while a parade of travelers pretty much like myself vied for his attention, tea, and a spare bed among the endless books.

I was one of the lucky ones, parked in the prized room where every famous writer who'd passed through Paris was rumored to have written his or her masterpiece. I felt like Colette locked away by her husband, not to be let out until the day's story was done. An overstuffed day bed and walls full of books and handwritten manuscripts held tight with rubber bands or twine gave the room a magical, almost Victorian air. On a desk before a front window was an old electric typewriter where I would sit, day after day, hammering away the nonsensical rambles of untutored youth. The tourists would line up outside the window, pointing up to me, snapping photos, certain I must be some famous poet.

But like most of the people who passed through the store and received the generosity of George Whitman, I wasn't the least bit famous, just another rambling soul in search of good books, good conversation, and a good heart. And that's what we got at Shakespeare & Co., because for all the famous writers he might have known through his bookstore and his adventurous life (and it was the stuff of adventure), it was those who would never become famous that George gave so much of his time to tending.

He could be gruff and grouchy and when he was in a bad mood, we stayed away, swapping stories, myths and legends. Was he really descended from Walt Whitman? No, that was just a rumor he liked to keep alive. Did he really steal the name of the bookshop from Sylvia Beach? Well, some say she gave it to him, just like that. Did he really sneak off with Gregory Corso's manuscript and wouldn't give it back? Ah, well, that, yes, that one might be true, some say they actually saw it . . .

But then again, some said they actually saw Gregory Corso. It was while I was there that the manager at the time, a dark and suffering soul who wrote mystical poetry about the black, blood darkness of early dawns and unrelenting shorelines, grabbed me by the hand and rushed me out the door.

"Hurry, we have to get out of here, lock the door and let's go!" The skeleton key rattled in the lock as I tried to turn it with my shaking hands, then we ran down the stairs and through some alleys until we were well out of sight and out of breath.

"What's going on?" I asked, panting and laughing and feeling like some endangered heroine in a Polanski movie.

"Gregory Corso is back! He's come for his manuscript!"

"So we have to run away?" Another cross-cultural rule I'd yet to learn, no doubt. There's no making sense of the French sometimes.

"Yes, yes, I have it; right here, under my coat!"

"You have it, let me see!"

"No, I can't show it to anyone, George wants me to get it out of there."

"But it belongs to Gregory Corso, you should give it back to him."

"Of course I should give it back to him, but George wants to keep it. He says that Gregory owes it to him."

"Does he?"

"I don't know, probably not. I just know I'm supposed to get it out of the shop."

I felt like we'd committed a horrible crime, but there was something so terribly exciting about running away from Gregory Corso, even though I didn't have the faintest idea, at the time, of who he was, other than some poet. But I did know that whatever he owed anybody, he had a right to his own manuscript, and being a part of such a caper made me squirm.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, there were many Gregory Corso sightings. "He was just here, you just missed him." "He just went upstairs -- no don't, he knows you're staying in the room, he'll want the manuscript." "He just came in here and had a terrible fight with George, you just missed it." "He's right there, no there, oh, no, too late, he's gone, he slipped past the Surrealists and he's gone."

I never saw Gregory Corso, and I never saw the mysterious manuscript, which, for all I know, never existed. And for that matter, I was never even certain that Gregory Corso existed. But at George's bookshop, anything could happen, and just knowing that, made every moment swell with possibility and expectation, no matter how otherwise dreary and uneventful it might be. And that was one of the gifts that George Whitman gave the world. Among the books and manuscripts and overstuffed chairs and beds and pots of tea, he created a community of curiosity and expectation, a place where anything might happen, and anyone might become someone at any given moment, just through the turning or the typing of some pages, the twist and turn of just the right word, the perfect image flung across an empty page. Or the perfect conversation shared among readers and writers and thinkers and travelers, hungering story tellers all.

George Whitman died this week, at the age of 98, in that very room I wrote in. And just in the nick of time, it appears, as booksellers throughout the world make way for the mega-sellers, and the communities that formed inside these wondrous shops now scatter to the cyber-corners of the world to chat in virtual time and space, eyes never meeting, hands never touching. With the passing of George Whitman, one of the last of the great booksellers has gone, but the tens of thousands of travelers whose lives he touched live on. Angels and demons, each of us, finding our place in a world gone weird, remembering the "Socialist Utopia disguised as a bookstore," as he called it, the little place of mystery and magic, the bookstore.