George Whitman—R.I.P.

[caption id="attachment_870" align="alignleft" width="389" caption="Photograph of George Whitman taken by Gary Auerbach © 2010"]Photograph of George Whitman by taken by Gary Auerbach © 2010[/caption] Back in the early 1990s, I ventured outside of the world I knew to end up in Paris, France, my first trip abroad other than to Mexico, Canada, or Central America. It was an amazing, eye-opening, and romantic time for me (my wife of about three years, Trini, accompanied me on this trip). In 1991, Curbstone Press of Connecticut published my second book of poetry, “The Concrete River,” and this opened up a world of words and books I didn’t know existed. During my time there, I befriended George Whitman, the owner and founder of the Shakespeare & Co. English-language bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris. I read there to a full house one afternoon. George and I talked frequently. At one point he asked me to submit a poem for an anthology he published to raise funds after the Sylvia Beach Library upstairs burned in a mysterious fire. Trini and I enjoyed ourselves immensely being among the other English speaking students, writers, and artists who congregated there. I had lunch with the late great African American poet Ted Joans. I found wonderful professors of Chicano literature and art at the University of Paris. I even hooked up with old friends and colleagues from East L.A.—Chicano artists, poets, rappers, and performance artists—who were on a tour of France at the time. This is what I wrote about my meeting with George Whitman in my latest memoir, “It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing” (2011 Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster):
At Shakespeare and Company bookstore, on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame Cathedral, the eccentric and beloved owner, George Whitman, invited Trini and me to stay in a room at the “Tumbleweed Hotel,” the second floor of the bookstore where many English-speaking writers and students were allowed to stay without paying. George only asked that in return I spend a couple of hours daily in an afternoon tea talking with young writers and travelers. I loved these interactions and this saved us hotel costs. We stayed about ten nights. The rooms and bookstore were filled to the ceiling with books. We had to climb over them on staircases and push them off tables, beds, dresser drawers. Many were valuable first editions. The pulp and cloth were meant for me. They brought back a time when I first held a book in my hand, a stammering boy of seven, in between languages and silences, finally discovering worlds that didn’t hurt or dismiss me. In a book, the writer doesn’t have the last word—the reader does.
Sadly, my long-ago and far-away friend George Whitman passed on last Wednesday, December 14. He apparently had a stroke a few months earlier and died peacefully in his sleep. His daughter, Sylvia, is now the proprietor and will continue his legacy of books, ideas, and art at Shakespeare & Company in Paris. I pray George’s soul is at peace. He is a friend to writers everywhere. Que descanses en paz, amigo. c/s [Visit here for more of Gary Auerbach's photos]

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