What were your favourite subjects when you were at school?
I absolutely loved history and theatre, thanks mostly to Dr Scott who was such an inspiring teacher.
When you were at school, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do when you left?
Not at all, I thought that maybe I would work in theatre but I really didn’t know.
Did you go onto Further education after you left school? If so, what did you study and where did you hope it would lead? What was your first job after studying and what were your plans for career development at that time?
I went to University College London to study History of Eastern Europe. Again, this was inspired by Dr Scott. At the time, I thought it might lead to something in the Diplomatic Service. Doing CCF at school had somewhat introduced me to this idea.
How did you come to work in your father’s famous bookshop? Were you involved in it throughout your life, e.g. during school holidays or was it something you came to later in life?
I came to visit my father after university partly because I was a bit lost and was looking for inspiration for my next chapter. He was also 88 years old and I really wanted to spend time with him. I quickly fell in love with his eccentric character, the bookshop and Paris itself.
How did you feel about taking on responsibility for managing and developing such a Parisian Institution?
Naturally, I was quite daunted as I had no experience with something like this. However, I didn’t have much time to think about it because there was a lot of tidying up to do. For starters, we had to clean the bookshop. George had spent years glueing carpet down with pancake batter and repairing the electrical system with sticky tape. There was just so much to be done!
Did you have immediate plans for change or were you happy to continue on with the traditions established by your father?
I started making some changes immediately, through sheer necessity (see above). This meant I was in a constant tug-of-war with George. These tussles often ended up in fits of giggles, because neither of us took it too seriously. I was always very conscious to never alter the spirit of the bookshop, as it means so much to many people. I tried to maintain a careful balance in protecting the heart of the shop while making it a safe place for people to visit, as well as attempting to keep up with the times.
When you first took over, what was your biggest challenge for the business? And what do you perceive is the current biggest threat?
The biggest challenge was trying to make it safe and appealing to current visitors, while George was around. For example. in my first year, the police said they would close us down because the staircase to the reading room was practically a ladder and needed to be changed for safety reasons. When I went away for a weekend after having the stairs installed, George came down at midnight and tore them down with a hammer!
I think the current biggest threat is climate change and the fact that tourism is quite a precarious industry as a result. The pandemic made me realise how affected we are by tourism, being opposite one of the most famous monuments in Paris, the most visited city in the world.
How do you compete with online booksellers? What is unique about what you do?
It was really revealing during the pandemic when we were only able to process online sales and the bookshop transformed into a kind of packing warehouse. The team really missed the human contact around books. We all struggled with the lack of personal connections books provide. In Lewis Buzbee’s book about independent bookshops he wrote they “are a charming combination of solitude and gathering”. We missed the gathering.
We always try to make it clear in our communication that we can’t compete with online giants. We make the hidden costs clear and remind customers that we are humans working at a normal pace, happy to recommend books and provide books, but not at miracle speeds.
What advice would you give to current pupils at Mary Erskine when they are thinking about their future?
I think I’d choose a quote from James Baldwin that invites everyone to read: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me to all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
What is your fondest memory of your time at school?
I loved the organised pyjama party where we were allowed to sleep in the actual school. I think it was called the “Big 24”, or something like that. It was such fun! I loved the open-air spaces and sports that were available, CCF, theatre, music and going up to the Highlands for a bothy weekend. It was so exciting to spend time in wild nature.
What is a book you would recommend to anyone you meet?
It changes daily! Right now I’d say Fight Night by Miriam Toews or The Climate Book by Greta Thunburg but most often it’s Circe by Madeline Miller, Alice in Wonderland or poems by Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver or Carol Ann Duffy.
What are your hopes for the future of Shakespeare and Company?
There are always a million projects going on, which makes the shop such a dynamic space. This, and the fact that we are in the shadow of Notre Dame, along the River Seine and next to the oldest tree in Paris, means the house is so full of stories. There are so many things that have taken place here, and many tales we are unaware of. We are always in the midst of something! Right now, we are in the middle of huge building works, opening up the fiction room by adding a glass verriere . We are publishing our own edition of Alice in Wonderland and our own editions of some of Shakespeare’s works. We are also working on our writer’s residences here and in the countryside. There are many things to come!
2 thoughts on “Interview with Sylvia Whitman, MES 1999, Owner, Shakespeare & Company”
Fascinating READING. Good luck.
Loved this….talk about being able to rise to a challenge…not to mention grit and staying power in the face of determined opposition..
Had to giggle at the bizarre fact of how anyone ( George) would have used pancake batter to stick down a carpet…
Well done, Sylvia….
Definitely a credit to my alma mater: MES