Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2012 Issue

Legendary Parisian Bookseller George Whitman Had Died

Georgewhitman

George Whitman, many years ago.

To last in the book selling field for a long time, you have to have an at least workable business model, and a dedication to the field of books. To last in the field a very long time, you also need to be granted a long lifespan. George Whitman had all three. An American by birth who opened his shop in Paris, and was not all that young a man when he started, mind you, Whitman lasted in the trade for 60 years. His magic was longevity. Whitman died in Paris on December 14, 2011, just two days after his 98th birthday.

According to the bookseller's website, George Whitman was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1913, but moved to Salem, Massachusetts, when still young. After high school, he attended Boston College, graduated in 1935, bummed his way through Central America, made his way to Hawaii, then San Francisco where he worked as a cable car conductor, and back to Massachusetts where he attended Harvard. He was called into service during the war, where he saw much of Europe in a medical unit, and then returned to the U.S. to run a small bookstore in Taunton, Massachusetts. Next, he traveled back to Europe, and took up what would prove to be permanent residence in Paris in 1948. In 1951, he opened his bookshop, Le Mistral, named after a girlfriend. However, that name would soon be changed to the one for which he would be known – Shakespeare and Company.

That was not an original name. Shakespeare and Company was a famous Paris bookshop dating back to the 'teens. It was most noted as being the original publisher of James Joyce's novel Ulysses. Proprietor Sylvia Beach was willing to risk publishing the book after all others Joyce approached declined, fearing censorship. France was more open, so Beach took the chance. However, the original Shakespeare and Company was forced to close down during the war, and although Sylvia Beach lived until 1962, it never reopened. Whitman was inspired by Ms. Beach, and evidently more so than by his first love, as he quickly renamed his bookshop in honor of the original. He would take the honor one step further in 1981 when he named his only daughter “Sylvia,” also after Ms. Beach.

Over the succeeding 60 years, the second incarnation of Shakespeare and Company would develop its own reputation, also as a second home to writers and various other interesting and unusual people who made their way through its doors. Whitman was a good friend of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who encouraged him to open the bookshop. Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Allen Ginsburg were among the many notables to pass through his shop. In 2006, George Whitman was honored with an award as an Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture.

A few years ago, George Whitman turned over operation of the bookshop to his daughter, Sylvia. He continued to live upstairs over the shop, and served as something of a bookseller emeritus, virtually to the end of his life. Shakespeare and Company continues to operate, now in its 61st year, under the management of George's daughter. Whitman was buried in Paris' Lachaise Cemetery, in good company, with Balzac, Apollinaire, and Wilde.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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