Sunday, January 15, 2012

Molly: Remembering George Whitman

Larry recently came home with the New York Times obituary section.  He had been looking through it and noticed the obit for someone dear to my from my childhood; George Whitman.  I asked him what made him choose this day to look at the New York Times – it seems so weird that huge chunks of time will pass without  ever looking at the NYT, and here the one day he does, it has something which pertains to me! The world moves in strange ways. I have posted the obit here:

When I was a child the Cypriot government asked my father to come to Cyprus to teach them how to
run their television station (my father was a producer/director for KQED in San Francisco). The British government had recently pulled out of Cyprus  (1966) leaving them with a functioning television station but no engineers to run it.

This was one of the most adventurous years of my life of which I have very fond memories.  I was 10 years old at the time.  On the way to Cyprus we stopped in Paris and stayed with an American who had made his home there for many years.
This was George Whitman and he owned the Shakespeare & Company  bookstore.  Our friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti had contacted George and asked him to put us up.  When we arrived it was like walking into another world.  George’s bookstore was a mass of books stacked everywhere and to my 10 year old eye it seemed without rhyme or reason.

Photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti  hanging in the bookstore

At that time the front room above George’s bookstore was a room he kept for guests to sleep in,  so it was more a bedroom than a book room.  This is where my parents slept.  A large sunny room overlooking the entrance to the store and Notre Dame, books everywhere and the bed sitting on the floor.  To get to this room you had to walk through a very narrow and short hallway.  This hallway had been made into a sort of kitchen, with a cast iron two burner stove and small sink sitting on top of a shelf unit.   It also had a grate in the floor so you could look thorough it and see if a customer walked into the store!

View from the top of the stairs through the small hallway to the front room where my parents stayed

My bed was a nook in the children’s book area.  You walked up the narrow stairs and immediately turned to the back wall where there was a little alcove with a bed which was lined with children's books all around it.  It was like a heaven to me.  I loved this spot and felt like it was a secret hideaway even thought it was in a public bookstore.

 Here, in 2004, you see one of George's customers enjoying a book on the bed where I slept in 1966.

George always had carrots with him and he ate them at all times.  He used to offer them to me.  George was a very thin man, small and wirery and he had orange (red) hair and a scraggly red beard.  He looked to me like Dickens’s character Fagan. He was very kind to me and liked to joke and play with me.  He also asked me to run the cash register for him when he was out.  So I would sit in the little well where the register was , and since I did not know any French, the customers had to tell me how much they owed me and what change to give them.  This did not bother George at all!!

George in 2004 age 91
One morning he offered to make us breakfast and proceeded to sweep the little kitchen/hall floor, using a newspaper as a dustpan.  He then used the newspaper to wipe clean the frying pan and started to make up pancakes.  I can remember my Dad making a face at my mother and shaking his head, trying to say don’t eat the pancakes, but I quite liked them.

The kitchen in the hall circa 2004

One of the truly bizarre things to me was the need to go out the front door and around  the side of the building  in order to use the bathroom.  You had to unlock a door and walk down a long hallway, which was actually an alley way with a roof between two buildings.  Then you unlocked another door and entered a closet, where you had to reach up and pull a string which would turn on the lightbulb which swung overhead. The closet  was empty except for two foot depressions in the floor on either side of a hole. You were supposed to place your feet in the depressions and do your business over the hole.  Yeeeck! (Larry says this is the description of what is known as a French squatter.)
We stayed with George for close to a week and then he found us a small apartment where we stayed and would go to visit George daily. I remember this time in Paris very fondly.
When I was 14 my parent’s marriage was on the rocks and my mother decided to take herself and me to France and England. 
When we arrived in Paris we went once again to visit George.  I remember how awkward this visit was for me,  how much I missed the George I had remembered.  I think he took one look at this teenager, me, and didn’t know how to respond.  He was quite kind but there was none of the old joking or teasing and I missed it. I believe George truly liked little kids and went out of his way to make them feel welcome and cared for, once they grew to teenagers we were in a no-where land for him.  At least that’s how it felt to me.

In 2004, Larry and I went on a trip to Italy and France.  We went to Shakespeare & Co. not knowing what to expect, it was wonderful to find George still there.  I went up to introduce myself, he was kind but it was obvious he did not remember me.  As I walked into the store Larry went over to him and said “that’s Virginia Hagopian’s daughter”.  George eagerly stood up and looked around and asked Larry “Is she here?” Obviously my mother did make quite an impression on George!!
George invited us up his apartment on the third floor for tea the following Tuesday. It was a wonderful tea and we sat and talked with many people who had had similar experiences with George over the years.  He was a great character and I know many others well remember him with great fondness and appreciation.



I feel very lucky to have known George for the brief time I did.  He made an impact on me that I still feel today. How incredible was it that I was able to go back and see him 41 years later!  He was still hail and hearty and running his bookstore with flair! George kept apoligizing to Larry and I that he did not have room for us at that moment, he kept saying we should come back at the end of April so he could put us up!! I was very lucky to have known him.

George, Molly and Larry - April 2004

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