I Wish to be a Tumbleweed
Writing and sleeping in a legendary bohemian bookstore
I was lucky enough to be the Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac House, living in his old Orlando cottage for three months to write in the summer of 2011. Still, one of the best times of my writing life. My time as the Writer-in-Residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home was also a big part of my creative growth. I worked in an attic office built inside the old Victorian home in Oak Park, Illinois where Ernest was born. Completed a novel there. It was a magical time.
Despite this, I still have a writer-in-residence dream to fulfill.
I wish to someday be a Tumbleweed.
George Whitman, the long-time proprietor of the celebrated English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris, situated on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame, was a self-proclaimed “tumbleweed.” He relied on strangers to give him shelter as he “blew along” from place to place in his early life. He wanted that spirit to live on and he longed to give back. In 1951, when George founded the bookstore, this was his motto: “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” And so, he opened his doors to writers, poets, artists, and intellectuals as a place to rest and stay, a refuge. All they had to do was commit to reading a book a day, helping in the shop, and to write a short autobiography for the archives. Since then, there have been some 40,000 Tumbleweeds.
I want to be 40,001 . . . or 02 or 03. Hell, I’ll be 41,239. But I hope to be one no matter the number.
Shakespeare and Company is not a bed and breakfast. It is not an Airbnb. It is a bookstore. Tumbleweeds sleep amongst the books. One former Tumbleweed said he “shelved himself” in the children’s section. Others have slept in the poetry nook. There are writers’ spaces, tiny and cramped, but magnificent in simplicity. Of course, I don’t know any of this from firsthand experience, only from all the reading I’ve done and the photos I’ve admired on the great bookstore, the Tumbleweeds, and the creative energy in every corner.
Why is this important to me? Why is this a dream?
Interesting questions, really. Why would a 65-year-old man want to sleep in an old, cramped, very un-private bookstore? Write in a tiny—again, un-private— space? And help shelve books all day long? Assist customers in finding what they’re looking for? Isn’t there a good hotel nearby? Isn’t there an espresso and a croissant waiting for me at a nice little cafe around the corner?
Shakespeare and Company is full of ghosts, ghosts I very much want to hang with. It’s not only the books, but the people who have been there to read their work, to share their creative lives, to write, to sleep. Yes, the famous have been there among the many volumes, over and over, and too many of them to name. But the bookstore has also been the home, at least for a night or two, for the very unknown—the dreamers, the deep thinkers, the artistic spirits of every culture, nationality, community, sexual identity, and age. The unknown “angels” of the creative life. That kind of energy and spirit must be like no other.
Someday I will go. Someday I will hang out all day and wait my turn, hoping that on that night there will a space for me at the bookstore, as there are no reservations at the “Tumbleweed Inn.” You cannot book your stay on Travelocity, and of course, there are no chocolates left on your pillow at night, and no spa to receive a massage, no pool. But, of all the creative dreams in the world, this might be the best five-star stay on the planet, and one of the most coveted in the creative world.
Photo Credit: Shadowgate