Angels in Disguise

by HRM on December 15, 2011

George Whitman: 1913 - 2011

George and kitty

When I found out that George Whitman had died (peacefully, in his bed above the bookshop he founded in 1951) I started writing a list of all the people I met at or through Shakespeare & Company who have changed my life in some way, however big or small. I stopped when I reached thirty, but could have continued. Poets, pianists, physicians, people figuring it out. People from England, Sweden, Australia, Korea, my hometown.

George created a place where people could come, sleep, sit, read, talk, listen, share, be. By his own estimate, he lodged some 40,000 people. As Mr. Whitman put it, “I wanted a bookstore because the book business is the business of life.”

Though I never slept there, I did work there for a time and the experience – the community – changed the shape of my life. And the magical thing is: it did (and does) for everyone. Looking through the Tumbleweed diaries, the piles and piles of scrapbooks and loose pages with passport-photographs and histories and dreams, you start to get a sense of all of the individuals in this community. The web that George has created now extends all over the world, and all of the people who have passed through – as well as, of course, those who have stayed and continue to build his living legacy – are linked through this.

Once, up in his apartment, he offered me lemonade – he was always making iced tea, hot tea, pancakes, Irish stew, coffee; making people feel welcome in his home – and said that this lemonade was made with fresh lime blossoms. I sipped, surprised. “Really? Where do you find fresh lime blossoms in Paris?” He continued tinkering with the sugar levels and said, quietly, as though divulging a secret, “no, it’s not really made with lime blossoms. It just sounds more poetic that way.”

I would like to thank George for creating this space – and thank all of the people who continue to run this place and make it grow: Sylvia, David, Jemma, Hilary, Linda, Terry, Thomas, and everyone else over the years – that has allowed all of us to find and believe in the poetry of our daily lives.

– Harriet Alida Lye

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