Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer is a memoir about the author’s stay at Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, and a tribute to a bookstore that has served as a refuge for thousands of writers throughout the years.
For people who do not know: there have been two Shakespeare & Company bookstores in Paris, both famous in their own right. Both featured English language books. Sylvia Beach’s store opened in 1919 and is most famous for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses. The store was also frequented by literary giants of the day: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and many others. It closed at the start of German occupation in Paris in 1941.
George Whitman’s bookstore opened in 1951, but didn’t change its name to Shakespeare & Company until Sylvia Beach died. George was a big fan of the original store, and acquired most of Sylvia Beach’s collection of rare books and first editions from the original store. He named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman, in honor of the first Sylvia. George’s store was also frequented by literary giants of the new generation – the beat writers, such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. He opened up the store to poor writers needed a place to stay – there are over a dozen beds throughout the store for writers to live and write in the bookstore.
Jeremy Mercer stayed at the bookstore in the early 2000s, and so of course his account is of George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Company. Jeremy was a newspaper reporter and crime writer in Canada when he fled the country to escape some intense personal drama. He soon found himself unemployed and broke in Paris. George Whitman and Shakespeare & Company gave him refuge, and he begin to start his life over and begin to write again. He also became quite close to George, who is a really interesting and eccentric man. It’s probably one of the best portraits of George Whitman that has been published so far.* (I’m not even aware of any other books about him, actually. Please correct me if I’m wrong.)
I loved learning more about Shakespeare & Company bookstore. Reading this book made me want to immediately book a flight to Paris so I can visit it myself.
This memoir will be greatly enjoyed by book lovers; it’s a treat to read first hand what life is like living and writing in one of the most famous bookstores in the world. But less bookish people will enjoy it as well – it’s almost travel writing too, in a way, since it’s about a foreigner coming to Paris and discovering the city. Its themes of being in a low place and needing a fresh start are universal. And really – what could be a better setting than a bookstore?
*According to IMDB, there was a documentary film released in 2004 about George Whitman and the store, called Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man. I’d love to see this, but not sure how to get a copy. It looks like it may not have been released on DVD.