An Incredible Book Journey: Time Was Soft There

Over the next six weeks, I will have the joy of visiting independent bookstores in 23 cities. Follow the trip and meet the many wonderful friends, book people and random characters I encounter along the way.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Seeing George

Let us just say that George Whitman can be a difficult character. While in Paris, I dropped by the Shakespeare and Company bookstore to give both George and his daughter Sylvia copies of the book. Sylvia was charming and gracious and wonderful. George, as cantankerous as ever, snarled and closed the door on me.

I concede that it must be difficult to read about yourself in a book, to see yourself in the mirror of another person’s eyes. And I know that George believes that if I was his true friend, I would have presented a more bucolic vision of Shakespeare and Company and written a romantic fairy tale. But, the journalist in me dies hard, and I wrote about everything I saw and experienced, both the magical and the unsavoury, and George still doesn’t forgive me.

His rejection is harder to take at a time when Diane Johnson (Le Divorce etc) has published such spurious rumours about George. How can he be angry with me writing about the lack of proper bathing facilities at this store when she raises such ugly spectres with no proof or attribution? If nothing else, my book was written with love and respect for the man who created Shakespeare and Company and I hope George comes to see that.

In blazing contrast was my visit with Simon Green, the extremely talented and rabidly eccentric poet who lived at Shakespeare and Company and figures largely in my book. He invited me and our mutual friend Ryan McGlynn to an apartment in Clichy where he was dog-sitting. Ryan had his video camera with him and thankfully so for nobody will ever believe Simon’s manic genius unless they see it for themselves. Simon offered us bourbon and other combustible treats, regaled us with photos of his garden on Belle Isle, and soliloquized on everything from Mao’s atrocities to Bob Dylan, all while wearing 150-euro designer T-shirt. To think this man used to scrape baguette money from the wishing well.

A final note about my Paris visit. I had lunch and beer with Buster Burk and learned that he had received a stunning 18 on 20 on his D.E.A. thesis at the Sorbonne. The D.E.A. is a one-year degree between Master’s and PhD and in the soul-devouring French system, students are happy with a 12 or 13 on 20 and over-the-moon delighted with a 15 on 20. For Buster, an English speaker from South Carolina to write a 100-page thesis about Apollinaire in French and get an 18 is unheard of. The boy is talented and I tip my cap to him.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


The train north is a depressing affair at the best of times. The sun is inevitably shining when I leave Marseille and just as inevitably the clouds thicken the farther north I get. Everybody who lives in the south of France talks about the weather and for good reason: it is so damn wonderful. When I lived in Paris, winters were wet and grey and it often rained six days a week. In Marseille, I can take my afternoon coffee on an outside terrace in February and last year my dear friend Buster Burk and I went swimming - briskly, I admit - and then sunned ourselves on the rocks on New Year’s Day. The longer I live in the south, the more allergic I become to clouds and cold, and I loathe to leave when winter is approaching.

But this time, the departure was nearly crushing. I have fallen in love with Marseille, a 2600-year-old port city that is raw and rough and alive. I have never really felt at home until Marseille. I think I dreamt a city like it might exist but never thought it could: ringed by mountains, soaked in sun, on the shores of the Mediterranean, a vibrant and diverse community that has earned it the nickname ‘the most northern city in Africa.’ After years of drifting and travelling, I finally found a place I could put down roots. And yet I leave, on this daunting book tour, to the cold winter of North America no less, with no sure plans of when I will call it my home again.

I also feared I had been too optimistic in the planning of this book tour. How can I manage to 10,000 miles on the road? Being ‘on’ all the time, no corner of my own to curl up, long and lonely highways. Sitting in the train, watching the city blur away from me, I wanted to throw it all in, to cancel everything and return home where I can take afternoon siestas and drink perroquets for my appero and simply be happy.

And, probably the most important reason for my depression, was the woman who waved me goodbye as the train pulled out of Gare St. Charles. She is the woman I thought I would spend my life with, the woman who stood by me while I wrote the book. We are travelling that treacherous bridge between love and friendship and I as journey out into the cold world once more, I fully understand all I am leaving behind.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Glory of the Bookstore

When I think of bookstores, that cliché about sex comes to mind. There is no such thing as a bad one. (Unless there is bookstore that specializes in grotesque hate literature and preaches racial violence; that would be bad. But anyways.)

Whether large chains or local crevices, online or on the corner, bookstores are places you can stumble upon new writers, reach out to old masters, and be swept away by wondrous ideas. And, as a general rule, brilliant people work in bookstores. If at this instant we transported all the bookstore people to one big beach party, it would be a hell of good time.

On this rather ambitious tour of mine, I have decided to visit only independent bookstores for a few reasons. First, my book is about an independent bookstore, perhaps the most famous in the world, Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Second, as an editor with Kilometer Zero, we discovered independent bookstores are more willing to give alternative publications space on their shelves, and for this I will be ever loyal to their cause. And finally, independent bookstores foster community far better than Amazon or large chains ever can. Everything from the note board with apartments to rent or music lessons on offer, to the weekly reading groups, to the booknut behind the cash who will linger over a Paul auster conversation with you, create an environment where people can relate to other people.

So far, I am scheduled to visit 20 independent bookstore in North America and a few more will be added to the list in the coming days. Come and see me if you can. I am on the road starting November 1st and the first stop is in Boston on November 2nd. It should be a mad mad time.