The following is a click story by another Twitter friend. Once I discovered that @winsloweliot was a writer I asked her to contribute a story and she agreed. As a writer I enjoyed the following story immensely and I think everyone else will too. You can explore Winslow’s website and writing here and find her on Twitter here.
*Never be Inhospitable to Strangers – A tribute to George Whitman*
A friend is on her way to Paris, and I urge her to visit Shakespeare & Co, a bookstore on the Rive Gauche. It’s a place that changed my life when I was seventeen years old.
I had just arrived for a month of studying at the Alliance Francaise (hoping it would help me in preparation for the A Level exam). Because of a mix-up with a friend, something that I did not tell my parents about before I left England, I arrived in Paris with no place to stay, and also hardly any money (this was in spring of 1974 – way before credit cards or ATM’s – and I literally brought only a few pounds with me. Enough for the course at the Alliance, food, and travel back to London.)
In my dreamy haze of confusion about what to do while in Paris in the springtime, I did the only thing natural to me: I found myself in a bookstore. I still don’t know how I got there. Even at the time I didn’t really know where I was; I just remember vaguely knowing that eventually night would fall and I better have a place to stay. But instead I spent hours and hours wandering up and down the three flights of grimy stairs, reading, pausing, amazed at everything I found there. I became lost in a world so wonderful I wanted to weep. For those of you who don’t know, Shakespeare & Co was home to authors and writers and travelers for years and years. There were letters pinned to the walls from Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and many others, personally addressed to the former owner, Sylvia Beach. You can find out a lot about this extraordinary place by going to the web site www.shakespeareandcompany.com, but there’s nothing like actually visiting.
So what happened?
When I was there Sylvia Beach was long gone, and instead there was an old (in my view, at least) man seated at the desk by the front door. (I realize he was not much older than I am now.) As I wandered the store, and rested on the various couches and deep musty armchairs, reading, exploring, and in awe, I knew all the time he was aware of me. As dusk started to fall, I made my way towards him and asked if he knew of an inexpensive place where I could stay the night. I expected he’d direct me to a youth hostel or a cheap pension. Instead he looked at me with the most piercing eyes you’ve ever seen and demanded, “Are you a writer?”
I remember answering with complete honesty (although with faint shame that I was as yet unpublished): “Yes, I am.” And he replied, “Then if you’re a writer, you can stay here.”
He didn’t ask where I’d been published, or what kind of things I wrote, or anything like that. He took it for granted that I was a writer, because I said so. It was as though he had seen my soul. Looking back, I think he saw my soul more clearly than I did. He was the angel welcoming me into a tribe.
Friends, for three days I stayed at this magical bookstore. It was open all through the night, hosting meetings, visitors, groups, friends. Writers met, drank coffee, talked, slept, drank more coffee, talked, wrote, and read. During a workshop someone would lie down on a couch and doze for an hour, then get up and join right back in. Late in the morning sometimes the doors closed so we could close our eyes briefly, but most of the time the place was alive with Writers and Writing. I remember washing out cups of coffee in the makeshift kitchen and realizing with a profound shock: “This is it. I am a writer.”
Years later I learned much more about George Whitman, and the extraordinary impact he’s had on so many people and on the cultural life of Paris and literature. I feel so lucky and blessed to have been one of those people.
One of his most famous quotes, that I continue to live by, is: “Never be inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”
Please, friends, visit this store and say hello for me to the ghosts and to the people who are there now.
by Winslow Eliot