American Diane Rios recalls a remarkable sojourn staying at the legendary Shakespeare & Co Paris bookshop, partying with the owner, the late George Whitman and his then 7 year old daughter Sylvie…
“I had always dreamed of living in France, since I was a small child being raised by hippies in Eugene. I worked hard and got accepted to the program and had one of the most meaningful years of my life. In Poitiers I was lucky enough to get a studio apartment by myself in the oldest part of town, right along the “Place de Pilori” where there was, oddly enough, a small replica of the Statue of Liberty, that was in place of the pilori, or stocks from long ago…
When there was a break in schooling and on many weekends Diane went to Paris with friends.
On one occasion she and her friend Lisa visited the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. Even then it was a legendary book shop and Diane had heard that the owner, George Whitman, sometimes let students and writers stay there in return for work.
Diane recalls walking into the store and “seeing George there. I asked him if there was anything we could do for him, to be able to stay a day or two. He was an irascible man, not welcoming at all, barking orders at other people who scurried around, doing his bidding. We were intimidated by him and prepared to leave, but he surprised us by telling us to clean the windows out front, and if we did a good enough job we could stay.”
Diane says she and Lisa got to work immediately. They found water and some rags and cleaned the front windows with gusto. “While we worked” says Diane “the bells from Notre Dame started to ring behind us. It was Easter and the morning was pink and gold and I was in heaven listening to that ancient sound, washing the windows. George would appear every now and then and tell us we were doing it wrong, but he was all bark and actually very kind.”
After they finished, George took the girls upstairs where they discovered dusty couches and narrow beds crammed under the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. He showed them books signed by Carl Jung, and Ernest Hemingway and introduced them to his then 6 year old daughter Sylvie. Lisa and Diane stayed at the Bookstore for a couple of days, “the beds were very uncomfortable, hard, flat and dusty. The rooms were extremely dusty and dirty, but with all of the amazing books lining the walls, dark curtains, lamps, and the fact that you could eat, drink, and smoke in there…well, it was heaven for us vagabonds. I didn’t mind the dust or dirt at all. There were two people to a room, as far as I remember, with some more permanent writers rooms above”.
So enchanted by her time there Diane returned with her friend Lisa a second time, and discovered it was the occasion of Sylvia Whitman’s 7th birthday. George invited the two girls on the condition that they cleaned the bathroom first! “There was home made cake, and I think we wore birthday party hats for a while at least” recalls Diane “though I don’t really remember much else, except that the bathroom George made us clean was filthy and we really earned our cake!”
Diane returned to America with her memories of Vienne, Paris and Shakespeare & Company and of the celebrated George Whitman “who would ride his moped around the streets and up on the sidewalks, yelling to get out of the way. Quite a sight!”
Years and years later, in 2003 Diane returned to Paris and to the book shop she loved. “There was George. Much more white-haired but still the charming curmudgeon he used to be. I went up to him and introduced myself, expecting some curt reply, but he looked at me and said slowly…”Eugene?” I was stunned. He remembered me! After all these years and all those people who stayed there, he remembered I was from Eugene!…”