” I think back to what George said about the bookstore being an annex to Notre Dame and I think it is very true. In the end, yes, it is a famous bookstore and, yes, it is of no small literary importance. But more than anything, Shakespeare and Company is a refuge, like the church across the river. A place where the owner allows everyone to take what they need and give what they can. ” (Afterword, p.258)
The circumstances that led to Jeremy Mercer’s, a criminal journalist from Ottawa, fleeing his home read like fiction: a thief whose exploits he wrote about issued a death threat that dislodged him from home and forced him to reevaluate his life. Down and out in Paris, a casual stop at the legendary Shakespeare and Company Bookstore proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience, which Mercer fondly documents in this memoir.
Since arriving at Shakespeare and Company, I’d graced a privileged rung of George’s informal hierarchy. I’d been given the keys, I’d been invited upstairs for dinner, I was his chosen confidant when he wanted to talk about buying the apartment, the future of the bookstore, or the love he had for his lost daughter. (Ch.29, p.185)
As much as Mercer tries to accept the general chaos and uncertainty of the store, he cannot be more grateful for the kindness of George Whitman, who allows him to work at the bookstore in exchange for a room. Modeled after Sylvia Beach’s original bookstore of the same name, which had become the hub for a generation of American and British writers in Paris but closed during World War II, George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company in the Left Bank has been a haven for poor artists and aspiring writers to alive and work for over forty years. So long as residents fulfill his obligation to keep the store for an hour a day and fulfill George’s ordinance of daily reading, they can live for free.
Here we were, a group of virtual strangers, running the famous Shakespeare and Company. Personally, I’d known the man for forty-eight hours and yet I had the keys to both his bookstore and his bedroom in my pocket. Coming from a life of police bulletins and home security systems, such trust seemed almost folly. (Ch.14, p.89)
Mercer’s stay at the bookstore epitomizes the bohemian lifestyle—roaming Paris, bumming food, writing and reading. On top of the strange but warm camaraderie with the other residents, Mercer describes his developing relationship with Whitman in details. The frugal owner who often misplaces his money and leaves bills between pages of books would make breakfast for his transients. A true bibliophile who values books more than money, he has been an inspiration to his guests, despite his struggle to preserve the legacy of his bookstore. To Mercer’s fond memories, George Whitman is bumbling along in this world of his dreams, trying to do his best without any grip on reality.
Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I’d ever felt. (Ch.26, p.169)
As much as I live vicariously through Mercer’s adventure, I come to learn about George Whitman and his amazing life devoted to books. Time Was Soft There evokes that lost generation of writers and artists that find haven in Paris. Reading the book offers a glimpse of the magic this literary establishment has brought to those who have been part of it. He does not write like Hemingway, but he does capture the elusive quality that makes Paris the mecca it is for dreamers and romantics.
260 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/
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