Time was Soft There
A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.
By Jeremy Mercer
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005
Hard back: ISBN: 0312347391 Price: $23.95
Time Was Soft There pleasantly surprised me, as much as life surprised its author. Mercer, who started his career as a journalist in Canada, found himself under a vendetta from a thug whose crimes he had reported. He fled to Paris and, not unlike scores of writers and artists who make a pilgrimage to the city, found himself out of work and homeless. Running out of money, he was offered a bed and a job by George Whitman, the proprietor of Shakespeare & Co., the legendary bookstore on the Left Bank. Mercer, who has a journalist’s crisp style and a good eye for human details, recognizes the real story is Whitman’s.
Whitman opened for business in 1951 and sometime later took the name of Sylvia Beach’s Paris store, which had played host to a bevy of now-famous writers between the world wars. For fifty years he has hosted authors and artists (offering them a bowl of soup and a place to sleep), promoted promising careers, and instigated various causes liberal and profane. The list of writers who visited and hung out at Shakespeare & Co. is a Who’s Who of twentieth century literary history: Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, the Beat writers, the Paris Review crowd, and Samuel Beckett, among others. Whitman says he and Beckett mostly sat and stared at each other.
Mercer worked in Shakespeare & Co. for nearly a year, becoming enmeshed in the egos and eccentricities of this bohemian community, which harkens back to an earlier age of bookselling. “Dude, Shakespeare and Company doesn’t even have a telephone,” his colleagues inform him. “Of course we don’t take credit cards.”
The book’s strength is its two main characters, the store and its owner, and the book is best when it stays inside the shop. Whitman’s motto is “Take what you need, and give what you can.” His aesthetic sense is uncanny, his business sense scatterbrained. After losing a stash of two hundred francs to a nest of hungry rodents, he muses, “At least it’s not the books.” Is Shakespeare & Co. really a business, Mercer wonders, and Whitman replies, “I run a socialist Utopia that masquerades as a bookstore.”