Saturday 19 April 2014

REVIEW: Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs - The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co, by Jeremy Mercer (5*)

Alternative title - Time was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co.
by Jeremy Mercer (Phoenix, 2006)

"Two months before I'd had a high-profile job with an enviable salary, a sleek black German sedan on lease, an apartment in a fashionable downtown neighbourhood, and a collection of not-so-inexpensive shirts and jackets hanging in the closet.  Now, there were a few hundred dollars in my pocket, no job or prospect thereof, some clothes jammed into an old handbag, and a bed in a tattered bookstore to call home.  All things considered, I couldn't have been happier."

As most of my regular readers will know (because I've mentioned it so many times!), this book and I have been good friends for many years now.  I bought it from the bookshop on my university campus and this month has marked my third reading.  The first time I read it, I fell in love.  The second time, I looked for inspiration.  The third time, I found both.  This is, I suppose, the story of our friendship!

My first reading...

I was still at university (I think) and fell utterly in love with Mercer's world of bohemians and books.  My review on LibraryThing went like this:

"On the run from an unfortunate mistake in his Canadian life as a crime journalist, Jeremy Mercer heads to Paris to escape for a while.  Caught in a rainstorm near Notre-Dame one afternoon, he spots a welcoming light across the river and thus stumbles inadvertently on the Shakespeare and Company bookshop.  Invited upstairs for tea by the beautiful woman behind the desk, wandering the labyrinth of books and beds, he soon realises that this is no ordinary bookshop and, as a poor writer, is invited to join the ranks of lost souls inhabiting the book-lined rooms.

So begins his whimsical and quintessentially bohemian stay, under the watchful eye of eccentric owner George Whitman (surely the star of the book, with his fascinating life and Communist ideals), who renamed his unique store after the original literary oasis, run by his good friend Sylvia Beach, which was forced to close down during the Second World War.  Here all are welcome to browse and lose themselves in their reading; tea is offered on a Sunday; eclectic readings take place in the library; literary and political opinions are argued out – and those in need of a bed will find one amongst the books in return for a few hours helping around the shop and in the kitchen.

Mercer deliciously evokes days trawling the scattered tomes, nights spent storytelling by the Seine, tourists attracted by the store’s reputation, wanderers attracted by Whitman’s generosity, showering in the public washhouses, scrounging leftover food to get by: in short, a poor life, without good facilities or scope for wastage of any kind, but a happy, lively life nonetheless.  The characters moving through Whitman’s utopia are many and varied, yet he remains, a kind of rock in the tides of time and tourism, as the chaos of youthful dreams and books and wine whirls around him. 

Of course, eventually reality bites for Mercer and it’s time to move on – but his journey is magical and the lessons of the bookstore honest.  Now I have Sylvia Beach’s own book 'Shakespeare and Company’ to read, and I recommend the documentary ‘Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man’, made towards the end of Mercer’s time in Paris and readily available online.  Still not sure whether to read it?  Try searching online for photos of the store in all its glory – if that doesn’t persuade you, nothing will!"

My second reading...

The second time I read the book, two years later, I was on the cusp of opening my bookshop.  Since then I'd seen the documentary I mentioned at least twice - it became one of my go-to methods for getting out of a reading slump or inspiring me to read more each day - and seen lots of pictures and amateur YouTube footage of the shop, and I felt like I was going into the book with a more rounded feel for the world George Whitman had created for himself, his writers and the daily flood of visitors.

This time around, I wasn't just looking for a bookish good read - I was also looking for bookshop inspiration.  Thanks to George and to Mercer's book, I understood that books are, ironically, only a small part of running a bookshop.  While we wouldn't have the space and the right kind of customers to create anything like George's vision, I tried to adapt some of the elements of the atmosphere I'd fallen in love with through Mercer's account into workable parts of our own shop.  We tried to pour ourselves into our surroundings and make our shop a friendly and idiosyncratic place to be.

We didn't have a mirror covered in letters and cards - but we had a humble pinboard with pictures, interesting things we found tucked in books, recommendations and bestseller lists.  We didn't have a shop cat - but we did have a tiny mouse that liked to sit in our bird feeder, much to the bemusement of the tourists.  We didn't have beds amongst the bookshelves - but we had comfortable chairs where regulars would sit chatting about books and their lives (or sleeping, in one case).  Because it was OUR shop, and we had the flexibility of mostly selling second-hand books, I wasn't afraid to sometimes make personal decisions instead of business ones, waiving a few pennies for a kid whose pocket money wouldn't quite stretch to a book they wanted, slipping in a freebie for a teenager who was eagerly collecting Star Trek novels, or helping out a practically-homeless woman who would 'buy' a book for a fraction of the marked price on the understanding that she'd bring it back when she was finished with it.  In the back of my mind, there was always the question, "What would George do?"  I still hadn't visited Shakespeare and Company, thanks in part to the agoraphobia that crippled me right at the time when a Paris trip would have been ideal - after uni, before work - but it was always in my mind, thanks to Jeremy Mercer and his magical book.

My third reading...

And so we come to 2014.  After four and a half years of trading as a mother-daughter business, in a bookshop that had become our second home, we sold up and moved on around the New Year.  Neither of us have been back to see what it looks like now - it would be like going back to your old house to see what the new owners have done with it - and it already feels like a distant memory, thanks in part to the crippling depression that's driven such a huge wedge between me and the rest of the world of late.

As far as rereading this book goes, it means I've finally read it as a whole, in a lot of ways.  The first time, I was reading it as a magical vision of bookish possibility; the second time, I was reading it and feeling inspired in my own business; the third time, I've been able to just read it for itself, feeling greater familiarity with the world Mercer was immersed in and a greater appreciation for the negative aspects of life at the bookshop - the thieves, the poverty - as well as the amazing ones.  I can also now place the timeline of the book compared to the documentary, which was made after Mercer left the shop but while he was still in Paris, the summer that George's teenage daughter Sylvia returned from England to live with him for a few months; some of Mercer's friends at the bookstore appear in the film, and so does he, briefly!  I can now appreciate how close George and Jeremy became over the years, and the role he played in bringing Sylvia back to Paris.  At the time he stayed in the store, George could only dream that one day Sylvia might come home and carry on the family business in his place, so it warmed my heart to know that his dream came true.  Without her permanent return to the shop, where she quickly took over as manageress, the bookshop might have been lost when George died just before Christmas 2011.  I only wish that I'd made it to Paris while he was alive... 

If you'd like to watch the documentary that I've been going on about with such reverence, it's not available as a whole on Google video any more, but it keeps cropping up around the internet, sometimes in sections, sometimes in its entirety.  It's just under an hour long in total, and gives you such a flavour of life at Shakespeare and Company in the early Noughties, its history, its eccentric late owner, and the 'tumbleweeds', the ever-changing collection of young writers who continue to live and work there to this day.  I love it, and (when it's available!) I watch it every so often when I'm in a reading slump or feel generally uninspired.  I hope you enjoy it too!

Notable Quotables:
  • "I woke up straight.  The instant my eyes opened, everything felt sharp and clear, as if I'd finished a wind sprint or stepped from a frothing sea.  I'd always been one to play with snooze buttons, lolling in bed and rationalising being ten, twenty, thirty minutes late for work or school.  But that first morning at the bookstore, there were no slow degrees of consciousness or seductive fingers of sleep.  I was alive."
  • "In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafés.  Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights.  That night at Polly's, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple.  That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too.  Hope is a beautiful drug."
  • "He washed his clothes by hand, ate the most basic of meals, and shunned the cinemas or restaurants.  With this regime, not only was he able to survive on the bookstore's paltry receipts but he also managed to provide communal meals and tuck away enough money to keep expanding the bookstore... George had discovered money to be the greatest slave master, and by reducing your dependence on it, he believed, you could loosen the grip of a suffocating world."
  • "I had been at the bookstore more than a month, but it felt like time had barely passed.  Without the normal barometer of a workday or a fixed schedule, life had become fluid.  It was hard to keep track of the hours and days in the bookstore, everything came and went in pleasurable waves of evenings and mornings and afternoons.  In the criminal world there is a term, hard time, which refers to difficult prison sentences in maximum-security facilities... Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I'd ever felt."
  • ""You know, that's what I've always wanted this place to be," he said.  "I look across at Notre Dame and I sometimes think the bookstore is an annexe of the church.  A place for the people who don't quite fit in over there."  I understood.  We sipped our beer until the sun set and then sat awhile longer."
  • "Living with George at Shakespeare and Company has changed me, made me wonder about the life I left and the life I want to live.  For now, I sit, I type, I try to be a better man.  Life is a work in progress."

Source: I bought this book from the little branch of Blackwell's, above Market Square, at the University of York.