George Whitman is the proprietor of the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris. He's famous for trimming his hair by setting it on fire, buddying up with all the Beat poets, and allowing young writers to sleep in his bookshop so long as they help out a bit and read a book a day. He's 93 and doesn’t like giving interviews, but we snatched one anyway...
Vice: Why do you love books so much?
George: Well, my father, Walt Whitman, was a writer. Have you heard of Walt Whitman? He was a very famous writer. So I've always been surrounded by books. I never feel alone in a room full of books.
What do you prefer, fact or fiction?
I like all books! I like all kinds of books. There are times when you want to read fiction, and there are times when you want to read facts.
Tell me about your favourite books?
I told you I like them all! But well, it depends... For facts, Walt Whitman, and for fiction Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky actually wrote a book about me.
Yes. It's called “The Idiot,” you should read it!
Are there any books you wouldn't sell here?
None. I mean, we sell “Mein Kampf” by Hitler for example. We sell all kinds of books. We don't believe in censorship. But naturally we wouldn't want to have too many books of fascism.
Tell me the single greatest story from this place.
100,000 people slept in my house. 100, 000! It's hard to believe.
Very. What was the best time you had here?
The best time is always when you're young. I'm 93 years old. I've given the bookstore to my daughter and she's very happy here. They're going to make a film about the bookstore, and she's always wanted to be an actress, and she's going to act the part of the bookstore owner, which is her own life.
What about the beat poets then? They all used to come here, right?
Yes. Allen Ginsberg stayed here many times. When he'd come to visit Paris he'd live in my house, and then when he became more famous, he would send young poets from New York City, who were trying to become poets... He would send them to live in my house with a letter of introduction, and of course his publisher, Ferlinghetti, he's my oldest friend in the book business. He founded the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and he's my oldest friend. We were both students in Paris. He came here when I was living in a room in a hotel that people were using as a library - everywhere I go I accumulate books. It was full of books from floor to ceiling. People used to come in there to use it as a library, and Ferlinghetti liked that very much, so he used to come too. And there were some famous girls that used to come there. It was very nice.
Who were the famous girls?
They were very nice.
Did they all fall in love with you?
Yes, all. Certainly.