- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005



By Jeremy Mercer

St. Martin’s, $23.95, 262 pages


Down and out in Paris five years ago, Jeremy Mercer briefly took shelter from the rain in a ramshackle bookstore on the Left Bank of the Seine — and stayed for tea. Almost broke, Mr. Mercer, an Ottawa crime reporter on the run from a death threat back in Canada, soon returned to the shop, but this time he stayed for five months.

In exchange he helped out with customers and odd jobs; he also promised to read a book a day. Whether by accident or design, he had found Shakespeare and Company, an unusual bookstore that for 50 years has served as a refuge for artists, writers, drifters and occasional deadbeats — a kind of homeless shelter with books.

The original Shakespeare and Company, the legendary expatriate bookstore founded elsewhere in Paris by Baltimore-born Sylvia Beach, became famous in the 1920s as a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and other literary luminaries. Ms. Beach closed the shop when the Nazis occupied the city and, after she died in 1962, the name Shakespeare and Company was coolly highjacked by another American, George Whitman, who had opened his own bookstore, Le Mistral, in 1951.

Mr. Whitman changed the name of his shop in 1964, thereby forever confusing tourists who fondly imagine it to be the hallowed place where Hemingway and the rest once gossiped and drank tea. (Some dazed visitors even ask: “Did William Shakespeare really live here?”) Adding to the confusion, Mr. Whitman named his daughter Sylvia Beach; and he doesn’t discourage the rumor that he’s Walt Whitman son.

A literary con artist? Maybe. Yet, as Mr. Mercer amply shows, Shakespeare and Company still thrives as a place to find writers as well as books, thanks to the peculiar genius of its owner, an avowed Marxist who lives by the creed “give what you can, take what you need.” From the start Mr. Whitman kept a bed in the back of the store for friends who needed a place to sleep, kept soup bubbling for hungry visitors and ran a free lending library for people who couldn’t afford to buy books.

Mr. Mercer had access to the bookstore’s archives — a fancy word for stacks of papers including bios of everyone who stayed there — and usefully reminds readers that the second incarnation of Shakespeare and Company attracted its own set of distinguished writers, among them Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Richard Wright and Samuel Beckett.

Allen Ginsberg gave a reading of “Howl” there and Gregory Corso stole first editions to support his various habits. Through the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the shop’s bohemian reputation grew, as did the space it occupied. Room by room, Shakespeare and Company expanded, until it spread over three floors, “a giant literary octopus” as Lawrence Ferlinghetti described it.

With each expansion, Mr. Whitman added more beds. Word spread of the strange Left Bank bookstore where you could sleep for free, and of its eccentric owner who saved money on haircuts by setting his hair on fire with a candle. “It stank the air no end but was amazingly effective,” according to Mr. Mercer.

Under Mr. Whitman, Shakespeare and Company became something of a tourist trap and now the bookshop is listed in every Paris guide, attracting thousands of visitors. Many happily toss coins into an iron-rimmed wishing well in the large central room and buy in-house publications designed specially for them: postcards, books and pamphlets featuring the store and its unconventional owner.

Some would-be residents who found the place a tad too unconventional fled when they discovered the toilet was primitive, there was no shower or bathtub for visitors and that there were cockroaches in the kitchen. Among those who stuck it out were Kurt, an American wannabe moviemaker who spent his time reworking his first and only script into a novel between flirting with pretty women at the cash register, and Luke, the night man, whose job was “warding off the thieves, drunks, and raving madmen” who showed up at the store close to midnight.

A British poet, Simon, at 56 much older than the usual 20-somethings living at the store, overstayed his welcome. After five years he had acquired bad habits like lifting cash from the till and refusing to let customers into the “antiquarian room” where he slept. But he redeemed himself when he was invited to read at a literary festival in Ireland. The reading gave Simon cachet and George Whitman clips for his publicity file.

Bright, beautiful Nadia from Romania was Mr. Mercer’s girl friend for a time, but when she threw him over for a woman his inner bourgeois reasserted itself: “Living in a subversive old bookstore makes one feel like a ready-made bohemian, but I still had a couple of decades of middle-class upbringing in my bones,” he writes. “I discovered I couldn’t really handle such an unconventional young woman.”

Overall I enjoyed this generally good-humored romp through the famed bookshelves of Shakespeare and Company but when the author slips into confessional-memoir mode I learned more than I needed to know about his troubles with drugs and alcohol. And some mysteries remain, chief among them the reason for Mr. Mercer’s hasty departure from Canada.

As he tells it, in his second book (of the “true crime” genre), he accidentally revealed the name of a source, a thief who had helped him with details of a safe heist. It’s hard to believe that the source’s name could be printed against the express instruction of the author, without the slip being caught somewhere in the editing process.

Finally, “Time Was Soft There” is a misleading title, suggesting a gentle stroll down memory lane or perhaps a temporary stay in a benign mental home. But as the author explains, “soft time” is the opposite of “hard time” in criminal circles. Hard time is for murderers and sex offenders and goes by slowly and painfully, leaving a man bitter long after his release.

“Soft time” passes easily in minimum-security prisons with exercise rooms, vegetable gardens and libraries. “Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I’d ever felt,” writes Mr. Mercer. The British title, “Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs” is a better fit, although Mr. Whitman denies the bedbugs.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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