On a street parallel to the Seine sits an old bookshop known for not only its postcard-perfect, teeming interior but also for its willingness to house poor, wandering bibliophiles. They didn’t let me in right away, though I knew they often tested the resolve of any prospective “Tumbleweed” this way. I briefly entertained the notion that they would see how deep and genuine my longing for this had been since I had first visited three years ago at twenty-one, and thus immediately usher me quickly out of the gray November morning. Instead, when I arrived straight off the train from De Gaulle, duffle in hand, the staff member who greeted me said this wasn’t really the best time.
“George is very sick — it’s not looking good…”
The George she spoke of, I knew, was George Whitman, legendary proprietor of Shakespeare and Company bookstore, friend to Beat poets and devotee of Sylvia Beach, the owner of the original Shakespeare and Company (and also the namesake of Whitman’s daughter). Sylvia Junior was the effortlessly chic cherub who inherited the store after her father’s first stroke and now decided which people who showed up seeking shelter and ample reading material were allowed in and which ones ought to find more conventional lodgings like — the horror! — a hostel.
I was not deterred, and returned as instructed on Saturday. I sat on a bench outside looking homeless, my big owl eyes pleading with the staff members who bustled around rearranging stacks of books. A young Canadian eventually took pity on me. “Why this place?” she asked. I wanted to give the detailed backstory — how I often fell crazy in love with old buildings, and how, five years prior, I had left Sylvia a smitten note asking her to house me some day when I returned — but I stumbled over my words.
“It’s okay,” she said, touching my shoulder, as if I were discussing bereavement. “It’s a hard thing to explain.”
I was given the okay, and the next day I moved in, prepared to be possessed by the spirit of Baudelaire. Instead of inspired, though, I felt alone. There were two other Tumbleweeds and a gaggle of pretty British youngsters with Russian fur hats and loads of time to loaf around on the couches. They all were vaguely unfriendly and pretentious in that way only people in Paris are. I overheard a conversation between a gamine French teenage girl and a fellow Tumbleweed, a goofy poet from northern England. Celeste, obviously besotted, drilled Johnny about whether or not it was possible to love someone for who they truly are, this word stressed even in her blasé French, or if you were doomed to love someone for your expectations of them. Eventually, I burst out in derisive giggling — did this child really expect to crack the mystery of love sitting on a ratty brown couch in a bookstore on a rainy day?
But two days after I moved in, just as I was beginning to fear the mystique was apocryphal, it hit me like an unexpected diagnosis. The morning was full of the unoriginal poetry of an American in Paris — a cheese crêpe, window-shopping on the Rue Saint-Honoré, sketching at the Musée Rodin. In the afternoon I returned to Shakespeare’s for my mandatory two hours of work, which were usually spent squeezing books onto impossibly cramped shelves. That day, though, I was asked by a manager to transcribe some excerpts from the journals of former Tumbleweeds for a book, in progress, on the history of the shop.
“George used to steal people’s journals,” the staff member told me, laughing at his audacity.
Indeed, everyone found his nefarious predilections comical. One journal author stated bluntly that George “had always wanted a harem,” and this shop was the way he achieved that goal: “His favorites are girls with long hair and short skirts who have a tragic sense of life and a magical sensitivity to people.” Sylvia’s mother was herself a Tumbleweed, though pre-women’s lib the women were known as “Angels in Disguise.” The fact that this lustful, lively man was at that moment dying in the attic bedroom just over my head became newly eerie. What would happen to the legacy he had built? That afternoon, transcribing the interviews with refugees in George’s Wonderland — objectors to the Vietnam War, former kibbutzim, erstwhile hippies — and listening to the bells of Notre Dame chime on the hour, I felt as if I were in exactly the right place, for once.
But my time in the shop was limited, for I was scheduled to depart in three days. I started fretting over my attachment, thinking of it as undue. I was an infinitesimal part of the store’s history, a fact that was brought home when, one afternoon, a miniature old woman tiptoed in, pointed to a sofa and said, “I used to sleep there!” I anticipated agonizing over Shakespeare’s the way you do over an ex-lover, wondering if they remember you as important at all or just an easy lay. My last night I stayed up late, wandered downstairs to admire the silhouettes of the tall shelves bursting with books, wrote a note of gratitude and hid it between two volumes, and then slept fitfully in a nook in the children’s section. I woke in the wee hours and slipped out into the still-dark morning.
Weeks after returning home to my nine-to-five grind and subway commute sansaccordionists, I had a dream that I was back at Shakespeare’s. I was with a group of Tumbleweeds, eight pale girls with long hair wearing long white dresses. It was extremely sunny outside. The staff instructed us to come upstairs for a talking-to. My first thought was, “We must be in trouble.” Upstairs, we paired off and clasped hands. They told us that George Whitman had died. Someone behind me wailed, and I bent at the waist, mouth gaping open but emitting no sound, dropping, dropping until my head almost touched the floor.
Later that day, my father sent me George Whitman’s obituary, in which it said he had died that afternoon, December 14, 2011, Paris-time. Of course, I thought. They told us that. Then I realized my error. When I told my father my dream, and how the timing matched up too perfectly, he brushed it aside. “According to Malcolm Gladwell, these coincidences aren’t extraordinary,” he said.
But despite my natural cynicism, I disagreed with my father and Gladwell. In the obit, it said George estimated he had housed over 40,000 people in his day. Maybe my dream was something I could hold close when I wanted to hear the bells of Notre Dame but couldn’t quite make them out. Maybe this was just for me. It sounds too magical, too sweet, and maybe it is, but magic suits the place, and George, and maybe even me.
Kelsey Osgood has contributed pieces to The New Yorker’s Culture Desk Blog, Salon, Psychology Today, Vice and Time, among other places. She is the author of the book How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia.