George Whitman

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For the political figure in Nova Scotia, see George Whitman (politician). For the member of the Los Angeles Council, see George N. Whitman.
George Whitman
George Whitman by Olivier Meyer.JPG
George Whitman photographed above his bookshop in 2008 by Olivier Meyer
Born (1913-12-12)December 12, 1913
East Orange, New Jersey, United States
Died December 14, 2011(2011-12-14) (aged 98)
Paris, France
Occupation Proprietor
Children Sylvia Beach Whitman

George Whitman (December 12, 1913 – December 14, 2011) was the proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, which continues to be a popular tourist attraction.[1][2] He was a contemporary of such Beat poets as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Whitman was born in East Orange, New Jersey, United States, and while he was still an infant the family moved to Salem, Massachusetts.[3][4] In 2006 Whitman was awarded the "Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" medal by the French government for his contribution to the arts over the previous fifty years.[5]


Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and young Sylvia Whitman in front of Shakespeare and Company, Paris, 1991

Whitman founded his bookstore in 1951 and named it Le Mistral, then later named it after Sylvia Beach's earlier Paris bookstore "Shakespeare and Company".[6] His shop, located at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in Paris, was opened in August 1951 (two years before a sister bookshop City Lights was opened in San Francisco by Lawrence Ferlinghetti) by George Whitman with an inheritance from his aunt. He called the shop "Le Mistral" after his first French girlfriend. From the very first night he allowed travellers, young writers, poets and artists to lodge in exchange for a hand in cleaning the shop, building shelves and selling books. Sylvia Beach, whose famous shop was on 12, rue de l'Odéon, was still in Paris and came to Le Mistral to see the writers of the new generation, whom Anaïs Nin called Xerox artists,[citation needed] read aloud their new work. Whitman modeled his shop after Sylvia Beach's and, in 1958 while dining with George, she publicly announced that she was handing the name to him for his bookshop.[7] As it was the only free English-language lending library in Paris, the Beats who arrived at the Beat Hotel on rue Git-le-Coeur quickly found their way to the small bookshop and made a place for themselves there. In 1962, Sylvia Beach died, willing to Whitman a good deal of her private books and the rights to the name Shakespeare and Company. In 1964, Le Mistral was renamed Shakespeare and Company.

From 1978-1981, a group of American and Canadian expatriates ran a literary journal out of the upstairs library, called Paris Voices. The editor-in-chief was Kenneth R. Timmerman and the editorial team included Canadian Antanas Sileika among others. Timmerman went on to become a novelist and political writer in the USA and Sileika went on to be a Canadian novelist. The journal hosted readings that attracted aspiring literary travelers as well as a scattering of voices from the past such as the beat poet Ted Joans and the journalist Jack Belden.

Whitman named his daughter, born in 1981, after his bibliophilic predecessor; Sylvia Whitman took over the running of the shop in 2003 at age 22. He was 68 years old when she was born.[8]

Whitman allowed young travellers to stay in the residential quarters of his rue de la Bûcherie premises (particularly, but not exclusively, published writers). Residents were also required to read a book a day during their stay--two days could be allowed for particularly long books--and were also required to work for two hours to contribute to the running of the shop. [9] All Whitman asked of his guests is to provide a short "biography" and photograph and work a short period in the shop. On Sunday mornings he traditionally cooked his guests a pancake breakfast, brewing up a thin ersatz "syrup" out of some burnt sugar and water.

Shakespeare & Co Books, Paris, 2011.

Whitman was the subject of a documentary titled Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man by Gonzague Pichelin and Benjamin Sutherland broadcast on The Sundance Channel in fall 2005. At the end of the film, Whitman trimmed his hair using the flame of a candle, set his hair on fire, and then doused it.

On Wednesday, September 26, 2007, journalist Gerry Hadden's story on George Whitman, his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman, and Shakespeare & Company aired on NPR's The World (a co-production of the BBC, Public Radio International (PRI), and the Boston radio station WGBH).[10][11]


Whitman died on December 14, 2011, at age 98,[12] at home in the apartment above his bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in the east of Paris.


  1. ^ Jo Lennan. "Paris: 10 Things to Do — 4. Shakespeare and Company Bookshop". TIME. Retrieved 2014-10-14. 
  2. ^ "Shakespeare & Company". Time Out Paris. Nov 16, 2011. Retrieved 2014-10-14. 
  3. ^, accessdate 14.12.2011
  4. ^ Simons, Marlise. "George Whitman, Paris Bookseller and Cultural Beacon, Is Dead at 98", The New York Times, December 14, 2011. Accessed December 18, 2011."George Whitman was born on Dec. 12, 1913, in East Orange, N.J., and grew up in Salem, Mass."
  5. ^ A. Craig Copetas (June 7, 2009). "Hemingway’s Hangout Spruces Up to Defy Amazon". Bloomberg. Retrieved 2014-10-14. 
  6. ^ "Literary Luminaries Hold Forth at Storied Paris Bookshop", The New York Times, June 21, 2010
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The "Found Generation" -- The New Literary Paris Legends", International Living, August 11, 2004
  9. ^ Daleth Hall. "Goodnight George, Goodnight Paris", December 15, 2011
  10. ^ "Legendary Paris bookshop changes hands", NPR - The World (audio, 4:30 min)
  11. ^ Gerry Hadden photos on Flickr
  12. ^ Kellogg, Carolyn. "Shakespeare & Co. founder George Whitman, 98, dies", Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2011. Accessed December 18, 2011.

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