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Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co. by Jeremy Mercer

Reviewed by Gail M. Murray

Having visited the legendary bookstore in September 2023, I was delighted to come across this memoir by Canadian journalist, Jeremy Mercer. Mercer worked for five years as a crime reporter for The Ottawa Citizen until 1999, when exposing one of his sources in print ended with a threatening phone call that caused him to flee to Paris.

Was it fate that, depressed and running low on cash, he took refuge from the pouring rain in Shakespeare and Co. and was invited to stay. After meeting the gruff owner, stay he did for nine months; it changed the course of his life.

This charming memoir published as Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs in the U.K., paints a subjective picture of life in the shadow of Notre Dame on the Left Bank living with an eclectic group of twenty-something, would-be writers, in a crumbling 16th century building, amid floor to ceiling bookshelves as the eccentric owner serves up Sunday afternoon tea amid readings.

Mercer gives a detailed history of both George Whitman and Sylvia Beach in Chapter 5. Whitman lived the Marxist creed, “give what you can; take what you need.” (p 30) Whitman opened his bookshop, Le Mistral, in 1951. In April 1964, he changed the name to Shakespeare and Co. in honour of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday and friend and celebrated bookseller, Sylvia Beach who had founded the original Shakespeare and Co. in 1919 at 12 rue de l’Odeon as a respite for writers of the Lost Generation: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Pound and Joyce whose controversial novel she published.

Whitman knew Beach in the fifties when she’d drop by for readings/author signings. He sought to carry on her spirit as a welcoming refuge for young writers, providing a literary and social oasis. In the 1950s, Whitman hosted the Beat Generation: Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Ginsberg, Burroughs. It was equal parts lending library, bookshop, and museum.

While working the front desk, Mercer is shocked to find, neither phone nor credit card machine. He quickly bursts the glamorous cache of Bohemian life, describing Whitman’s dirty, cluttered third floor apartment, squalid store toilet and the need to use public bath houses and dine at government funded student cafeterias. We glimpse the unsavoury along with the magic.

Although he greatly admires the man developing a close, trusting friendship, he’s honest about Whitman’s eccentric nature, poor business sense, frugality and mood swings from kindly to irascible. The man is 86 years old at this point. He stashes money in novels, absentmindedly leaves the cash register open, and mice nibble on franc notes. It’s a wonder they stay afloat.

Mercer profiles the various ‘tenants’ with a middle-aged poet, Simon, who has lived there five years, standing out. Whitman asks Mercer to evict him—that’s an entertaining chapter. Later, Mercer accompanies Simon to the Literary Festival in Dingle, Ireland, where he’s a resounding success!

Before leaving, Mercer performs a final act of kindness with Whitman ill and aging. He travels to London, facilitating reconciliation with daughter Sylvia, who now runs the bookshop.

For a trip to a gentler time and walk through this legendary Parisian bookshop, give this one a read.

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co. is published by Picador.


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