George Whitman was too old to be a hippie or maybe even a beatnik. In 1951, at age 38 he opened a bookstore in Paris that became a magnet for a new generation of writers. A couple years later he renamed the bookstore Shakespeare and Company in honor of the legendary bookstore of the same name owned by Sylvia Beach. In the 20’s and 30’s authors like T. S. Eliot, Hemmingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sherwood Anderson found encouragement and found each other at Beach’s bookstore.
George Whitman, who named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman, continued the tradition of encouraging young writers. Writers were allowed to stay in the rooms above the bookstore and encouraged to read a book a day and help around the store for a couple hours. For many years the Shakespeare and Company bookstore operated the only free English language lending library in Paris.
Of course, all this is part of the hip counter-culture that celebrates the bohemian lifestyle and sexual immorality (but calling it freedom). Many of the values of this community were destructive to those who held them and corrosive to society at large. But even though they got so much wrong, I want to say “hooray” for their radical hospitality and encouragement to the arts.
After telling his disciples the parable of the unrighteous steward and encouraging them to learn generosity from this scheming steward, Jesus comments, “For the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.” Sylvia Beach in the 20’s and George Whitman in the 50’s and 60’s recognized the power of the writer’s pen and that those who write the stories of a nation create the soul of that nation. They opened their doors and often their hearts to young writers. If only Christians would be so wise—so “shrewd”.
What would happen if Christians recognized the importance of writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers, and offered the kind of selfless hospitality and generosity writers found at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore?