A Sampling …
BLOOMBERG – Surprised by Joy
Sometimes joy is unanticipated. Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian crime
reporter, was on the run from a death threat when he landed in Paris
just days before the city center was packed with millennium revelers
on the last night of 1999.
In his memoir “Time Was Soft There” (St. Martin’s, 260 pages,
$23.95), Mercer describes how one day, broke and walking the streets,
he ducked into Shakespeare & Co., the beloved English-language
bookstore opposite Notre Dame. He was invited upstairs for tea and
soon after moved into the building for a five-month stay.
Shakespeare & Co. is known to anyone who’s gone to Paris to find
his inner Hemingway. Originally owned by Sylvia Beach, who published
James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the shop was closed during World War II.
It reopened in 1951, under the ownership of American George Whitman,
an avowed Communist who wound up installing 13 beds upstairs and
giving lodging to some 40,000 wandering writers in 54 years.
Mercer assisted the 92-year-old Whitman with customers.
Otherwise, the rent was modest: Make your bed every morning, treat
the other eccentric residents kindly and read a book a day –
preferably something by Bernard Malamud or Fyodor Dostoevsky.
In the denouement, Mercer repays George by reuniting him with
his estranged daughter. This is a heartfelt paean to literary
dreamers and the unique charm of that magical place.
THE NEW YORKER – JANUARY 16
Time Was Soft There, by Jeremy Mercer (St. Martin’s; $23.95). As a crime
reporter in Canada, Mercer received a threatening call after naming an
underworld source in a book. Fearing for his life, he quit his job and flew
to Paris. As his funds dwindled, he stumbled upon Shakespeare and Co., a
small bookstore on the Left Bank across from Notre-Dame, and spent nine
months living rent-free in the upstairs library, along with a rotating cast
of backpackers and aspiring writers. Despite Mercer’s predilection for
melodramatic flourishes, the memoir ably captures a romanticized version of
the bum’s life, with elaborate schemes to scrape up money (like buying
designer handbags on behalf of Asian tourists) and nights spent drinking
wine and swapping stories. But the real star is the eccentric and charming
bookstore proprietor, George Whitman, who remarks, after losing a stack of
two-hundred-franc notes to nest-building mice, “At least it’s not the
By Olivia Cole
Published: 01 January 2006
Jeremy Mercer was a crime reporter from Canada, a hard-living maverick teetering on the edge of self-destruction. In 1999, having aggravated a source to the point of a death threat, he resigned from the paper he worked for and left for Paris. Without a job or a visa, and with a whole closet of skeletons, he became, in the first cold days of 2000, one of the hundreds of guests who each year – paying nothing, and being paid nothing – live and work in George Whitman’s legendary English language bookshop, Shakespeare and Co. The shop’s motto, “Be not inhospitable to strangers/ Lest they be angels in disguise” has been carried out ever since it opened in 1951.
After the death of Sylvia Beach, who founded the first Shakespeare and Co, Whitman bought her collection of books, and, on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, re-founded his own establishment in homage to hers. In both its pre- and post-war guises, Shakespeare and Co has been a haunt for carousing and slumming writers. Ulysses was first distributed by Beach – Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein were her friends.
As a historian, Mercer is not averse to being seduced by these literary myths and by the beauty of Paris – be it two franc bordeaux, the view from Montmartre or no-brand bargain foie gras. However, even in his most enchanted moments, his is a Paris in which post-clubbing crowds “haemorrhage” into the night air and tour buses “disgorge” their school groups. This consistently gritty verbal texture suits the realism that he brings to writing of the almost childlike innocence of Whitman’s enterprise.
As its title suggests, Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs highlights the dirt and the disorganisation as well as the romance. Actually to live here for longer than a few weeks or months – residents include Simon, an aristocratic, alcoholic poet, and Kurt, a good-looking failed screenwriter from Florida – seems escapist and extreme. Descriptions of mornings at the municipal showers or of re-fuelling by gate-crashing private views and student cafeterias, not to mention brushes with the law, evoke haplessness and desperation as well as hopefulness.
The account of the practicalities of being genuinely down and out in Paris, with little hope of being up and in, doesn’t serve simply as a self-deprecating comedy. “The bookstore was catnip for idealistic writers” is Mercer’s more serious, melancholic assessment. While for a few (William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Anais Nin for example) it has been a stimulant, these are the famous exceptions. Mercer the memoirist (and aspiring writer) notes in a reporter’s brutal, single sentence, “Seven published novels have been written at Shakespeare and Company and thousands more begun.” Given the hours that have been spent typing on one of the shop’s rickety machines by would-be Hemingways (or, in the case of screenwriter Kurt, would-be Bret Easton Ellises) the statistic just about says it all.
The chance that wasted weeks, months and years could ultimately speak as much of delusion as self-belief and talent, colours each of Mercer’s pen portraits of his housemates. For anyone burning to create, Shakespeare and Co – a cross between a kibbutz, a party for college kids doing boho and a zoo for all manner of literary minded waifs and strays – would be intolerable. “Looking back at those months, I realise everyone living at the bookstore had a ghost lurking somewhere not very far behind them,” he concludes.
At the centre of this chaos is Whitman. Though no relation to Walt, George energes as a figure of not inconsiderable poetry. His life before the shop was spent as an academic and as a traveller, wandering, he says, “barefoot through the palaces of the world”. Though insisting that residents lose themselves in a book a day if they are to stay, his mission has had less to do with literature than life. “I sometimes think the bookstore is an annex of the church,” he comments, looking across the Seine to Notre Dame, “a place for the people who don’t quite fit in over there.”
Along with inventive frugality and capricious favouritism, another of George Whitman’s foibles is, apparently, culinary. With salty, weeks-old batter and watered down molasses in place of maple syrup, even starving writers apparently eat his Sunday morning breakfast treat as though “dissecting a frog. I bit. It wasn’t that it tasted bad, only so very different from any pancake I’d previously encountered,” recollects Mercer. Tender, disenchanted, self-castigating and bittersweet, Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs is a book that is consistently surprising.
GLOBE AND MAIL – BOOKS OF THE YEAR
There were so many books to choose from in 2005 that it was a Herculean
task to narrow it down. But ultimately, I went with a deeply personal
choice, Time Was Soft There (St. Martin’s) by my friend Jeremy Mercer.
It’s a memoir that reads like a novel about the Shakespeare and Company
bookstore in Paris, the young writers who lodge there, and its
complicated and good-hearted owner, George Whitman.
Mercer gives the store and its inhabitants, including himself, an honest
appraisal and comes up with true and loving portraits. Beautifully
written, without gratuitous sentimentality and with a reporter’s eye for
detail, this book became a sleeper hit in 2005, striking a chord across
all natural boundaries to win rave reviews from sources as diverse as
the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Vogue and OK Magazine.
George Whitman likes to say that his bookstore is a church for those
people who don’t fit in across the river at Notre Dame. This book does
justice to that idea, because it is also a story about non-religious
redemption, about, as one review noted, good people gone wrong who
righted themselves at Shakespeare and Company. This isn’t a book you
merely read, it is a book you can live in for a while. Sparkle Hayter is the author of the Robin Hudson mystery series.
GLOBE AND MAIL
BOOK A DAY
By JOHN ALLEMANG
Wednesday, January 4, 2006 Page R3
Time Was Soft There
St. Martin’s Press
262 pages, $31.95Paris is too hard to resist. I should have read David Leavitt’s biography of Alan Turing, the not-so-gay computer pioneer, but who knew that a book about a mathematical genius would have so much math in it? The Man Who Knew Too Much is back on the shelf for now, and perhaps forever. Life is too short to deal with the decidability problem, at least in this indecisive book-a-day world.
But we’ll always have Paris. A Canadian, John Glassco, wrote the best account of literary Paris in the twenties — the brilliant and beautiful Memoirs of Montparnasse — and now another successful escape artist has crafted the modern exile’s guide to la vie bohème.
Jeremy Mercer’s reasons for fleeing to Paris, at least the ones he puts forward in Time Was Soft There, are different from Glassco’s. Back in the twenties, it was vintage Canadian dullness that drove budding writers abroad, but in Mercer’s case there was too much excitement. A crime reporter for The Ottawa Citizen, he’d got a little too close to his subject. The aesthetic qualities of Paris were less of an attraction than the distance it could put between him and his past — he knew nothing of the legendary bookstore that ended up as the setting of his surprisingly tender memoir.
Shakespeare & Co. was famous in Glassco’s day as the place where Ulysses was published, but by the time Mercer arrived at the shop beside the Seine, it was just as much a writerly flophouse, presided over by a willfully eccentric octogenarian named George Whitman. Tourists stopped by for a sampling of Paris in the twenties, and instead got the turn-of-the-millennium version — unwashed and barely fed would-be writers staving off homelessness and finding the next-best thing to love among misshelved volumes that probably came from a church rubbish sale.
Despite its mistily sentimental title, Time Was Soft There is actually quite vivid in its descriptions of this bolthole for refugees from real life — money may be spurned in the best literary tradition (Whitman is a dedicated communist), but the starving artists survive by returning discounted CDs for full-price refunds or buying Vuitton handbags at cost for reselling at a profit to the hungry Asian market. Whatever vague aspirations Mercer may have had when he arrived, Paris set him straight pretty fast. But not too straight — that’s the beauty of the place.
Glassco, in his day, made porn. In either case, it seems to be an improvement on making a living back home.
Palm Beach Post – December 18th
The Best of 2005: The old lions of literature roar again . . .
By Scott Eyman
Palm Beach Post Books Editor
My best books of the year, in alphabetical order by author:
Terry Coleman’s Olivier: Biography the way it should be written and seldom is — clear-eyed, without salaciousness; sympathetic, but without the writer’s thumb on the scales.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking: The unanimously acclaimed memoir of the year, in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong — Didion’s beloved husband died of a massive heart attack, and her daughter fell ill with the sickness that would eventually kill her.
E.L. Doctorow’s The March: A brilliant panoramic view of Sherman’s Civil War march to the sea, in which Doctorow juggles dozens of characters, including Sherman himself.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores: A consistently delicious fable about an old man who wants to sleep with a virgin before he dies. Upon recruiting a 14-year-old, he can’t bear to wake the exhausted girl and gradually falls in love with her. She sleeps through every one of their trysts, which only causes his love to grow.
Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There: A bewitching memoir about young people in and out of love at the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Co. in Paris.
Peter Pouncey’s Rules for Old Men Waiting: The last few months in the life of a professor turned writer combines two narratives — the story the professor is writing about World War I, and the story of his own life. Both narratives are quietly magnificent.
Among the near misses, I would include two books about literary lives: Angela Bourke’s Maeve Brennan, a sad biography of one of the sadder people ever to walk through the halls of The New Yorker; and Sheryl Tippins’ February House, about a Brooklyn house that once held W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles, Peter Pears and Gypsy Rose Lee — all at the same time!
Also a near miss was Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which filtered a hackneyed story through an artist’s withering sensibility. A book entirely without pity.
There were also a couple of books that nearly everybody liked… everybody but me: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which struck me as far too long for the story it had to tell, and Stewart O’Nan’s The Good Wife — ditto.
As for the worst book of the year, that’s easy: Fan-Tan, “by” Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell.
The Sunday Times - December 11, 2005
Memoir: Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer
REVIEWED BY TERENCE BLACKER
BOOKS, BAGUETTES & BEDBUGS: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co
by Jeremy Mercer
Weidenfeld £16.99 pp224
On the left bank of the Seine, set back a few yards from the river and with a perfect view of the Ile de la Cité, is one of Paris’s stranger institutions. It is a small, ramshackle second-hand bookshop, specialising in English books, a favourite with tourists, an unofficial guesthouse and site for literary happenings of varying quality. For more than 50 years, the shop, now known as Shakespeare and Company, has attracted to it men and
women, mostly young and usually idealistic, whose greatest dream is to be a writer.
Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian in his twenties, was one of those whose life was changed by his time at Shakespeare and Company, and so, more than 30 years ago, was I. One of the surprises to emerge from this book is how little has changed in the place where once I worked, slept, read, got myself beaten up, failed to have sex, and listened to more pretentious bullshit than I have heard before or since. There was, and is, no bookshop quite like it anywhere in the world.
Like many who have ended up there, Mercer was on the run from his past. A crime reporter in Canada, he had betrayed a source in the criminal world and believed that his own name might be added to the murder statistics. He was lost, hungry and suffering badly from the writing bug. A shop where a would-be author could live free of charge, that required of those staying there only that they helped out in the shop and that they read a book a day, suited him just fine.
Its owner, a thin, impassioned, irascible, goatee-bearded American called George Whitman, had himself had been a wanderer before arriving in Paris in 1951 and setting up a bookshop called le Mistral. Like many eccentrics, he has a talent for marketing and in 1964 he appropriated the name Shakespeare and Company, made famous in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s by Sylvia Beach. Whitman’s tiny shop began to acquire its own legends: the great beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Ted Joans gave readings there, Graham Greene, Lawrence Durrell, JD Salinger and Henry Miller visited. There were rumours, never denied by Whitman, that he had an affair with Anaïs Nin.
Paris, free board, books, the companionship of fellow writers: it is a potent fantasy but, as Mercer makes clear, there is more to the story of Shakespeare and Company than its reputation as a paradise for bookish hippies in the middle of Paris. Whitman doesn’t make it easy for people to like him. Avowedly communist, he has an obsessive attitude to money. Generous to strangers, he has behaved badly to his own family. Forever welcoming newcomers, he can become cranky, even brutal, towards those who have got to know him too well.
The cheery title suggests a sunnier, less interesting book than Mercer has written. Helping Whitman as age and money problems close in, he also puts his crime reporting to good use, investigating the extraordinary story of the old bookshop owner to reveal an infinitely complex and rather tragic character behind the dotty, farouche Dickensian exterior.
There are enough shocks and secrets to make this account that unusual thing — the story of a bookshop that’s a real page-turner. In the end, though, it is less about a shop than a vibrant, affectionate journey through the chilly outer fringes of the scholarly scene, thronging with those dreaming hopelessly of writing the volume that will change their lives, and dominated by a man, now in his nineties, who must be one of the strangest, most contradictory booksellers in the world.
As one who preceded Mercer by three decades (spookily, I lived in the same arrondissement before staying at the bookshop and in the same street afterwards), I could detect only one error in the small classic of literary life that he has written. Whitman claims that the story about bedbugs in his shop was a one-off press slander. Sorry, George, not true: I had the bites to prove it.
Available at the Sunday Times Books First price of £15.29 on 0870 165 8585
San Francisco Chronicle – December 8
Books make great gifts. Juicy travel narratives, tangy memoirs with a distinct sense of place, photo keepsakes with stop-in-your-tracks images — they’re are all out there on bookshelves for the holidays. Here are a half dozen of the best:
“Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co.,” by Jeremy Mercer (St. Martin’s Press, 262 pages, $23.95).
Shakespeare & Co., the sister bookstore to San Francisco’s City Lights, is a Left Bank institution run by 90-year-old American expat George Whitman. It is also the successor to Sylvia Beach’s famous English-language Paris bookshop of the same name.
Mercer, a troubled Canadian crime reporter, haunted the bookstore several years back and became Whitman’s right-hand man. He ran errands, had mad affairs with other young artistes and barely scraped by financially while
living in a spare room in the store, along with a variable number of other Bohemian would-be writers.
It was a fortuitous arrangement. Mercer helped Whitman run the store and worked on his writing in return for room and board. He has fashioned a colorful de facto biography of Whitman, an eccentrically miserly and wholly unrepentant communist, and combined it with an unblinking gaze at his own sometimes unsavory qualities in a tightly written, insightful memoir of Left Bank literary radicalism. A great read, both funny and quietly moving.
Cleveland Plain Dealer – Monday, December 19, 2005
Julie A. Powell
Special to The Plain Dealer
Heading into Mac’s Backs Books on a bleak and snowy eve, I never imagined that I would find a half-dozen Clevelanders who had slumbered in a famous Parisian bookstore. But on entering the cramped, warmly lit Coventry shop, I did.
At first, I was apprehensive making my way down steep steps into a basement filled with an assortment of strangers. A young couple sat close together in the front; several silver-haired gentlemen filled the middle and back rows; one man leaned unceremoniously against a bookshelf.
In the front of the room, Jeremy Mercer – a tall, wiry, red-haired young man with dress-shirt sleeves extending far beyond the sleeves of his vintage brown suit coat – fumbled awkwardly with a brown leather bag
My stomach knotted for the author of “Time Was Soft There” (St. Martin’s, $23.95) as he began speaking, a bit hesitantly, but soon he had the crowd’s rapt attention.
Mercer discussed his troubled life as a crime journalist in Ottawa, his flight from Canada after threats on his life and the need for shelter and something more that led him to the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris.
The author described a peculiar refuge, a bookstore where more than 40,000 strangers have slept on beds among the books for free. Guests work one hour in the store each day, make their own beds, read or write and submit a few pages of autobiography, some of which have been published.
Mercer again fumbled with the bag, this time producing slips of crinkled paper, which he passed around. They were report cards, letters and even a World War II photo of a soldier, all belonging to the store’s famous and bizarre proprietor, George Whitman. We saw a video of the 92-year-old lighting his hair on fire with a large candle in lieu of paying a barber. We learned of Whitman’s early attempts to travel the entire world on foot.
Mercer’s full story, of course, is contained in the pages of his new book, part memoir, part travelogue and part biography of Whitman.
When the question-and-answer period arrived, I found myself eager to see how a Cleveland audience would absorb Mercer’s wildly bohemian story.
To my amazement, people began to raise their hands and tell their own stories about Whitman and Shakespeare & Company. One couple had slept there recently and might have bumped into Whitman’s daughter. Martin Juredine talked of eloping with his wife and winding up at the bookstore, where they stayed for a month. A man leaning in the corner piped up to say that he had been an unhappy neighbor of Whitman’s bookstore for 10 years. He continued to pepper Mercer with questions and good-natured chiding.
David Burke, the unhappy neighbor; Suzanne DeGaetano, co-owner of Mac’s Backs; Mercer; and I retired to the Barking Spider Tavern, invited by its owner, Juredine. In the candlelit place, over a glass of Chilean merlot, I learned a great deal about my neighbors. The conversations led through Paris, Third World economics, literature and, of course, Whitman of Shakespeare & Company. I left aglow with a baffled sense of pride over this table of people from my own hometown.
Mercer, in true Shakespeare & Company fashion, spent the night in my spare room. I had the unique experience of reading much of his book in his presence. I was able to ask about his penniless arrival in Paris, the travelers staying at the store, and Whitman’s magnetic, quirky, cantankerous presence in the center of it all.
Finding out about this book and its author gave me a vicarious taste of a wider world. It sparked my curiosity and made me feel lucky to find myself in a city that embraces bowling, rock ‘n’ roll and literary adventures alike, a combination that qualifies Cleveland as a good spot as any for any adventurer to call home.
Powell is a student at Cleveland State University, who grew up in Mentor.
Globe and Mail, December 11
St. Martin’s, 260 pages, $31.95
Paris, like Christmas, disappoints. Once you adapt to its beauty, and once you’ve flung open your arms in a gesture of universal embrace on the Boulevard St. Germain — while singing every germane anthem by Edith Piaf or George Gershwin — you start to notice that it’s either really hot or really cold, that the air is really fetid, that the food is often as really appalling as the Mona Lisa is really small, and that while Man Ray might have stayed in your hotel room in 1922, it would be really swell if his hair weren’t still clogging the drain. And latterly, the way the lights of the city of same are generated by burning buses hasn’t upped the romantic ante. Eh bien, c’est la vie, coco. Loss of lustre is inevitable in a place where the expectation-reality ratio is so hopelessly skewed.
Like Christmas, Paris is best suited to the young, albeit a more seasoned company of youth than typically delights in stockings and tinsel: the eggnog-swilling young. The young in one another’s arms. Jeremy Mercer, who is not now old, was younger still — weren’t we all? — in 1999, when he fled Ottawa and made his way to Paris, just in time for the turn-of-millennium festivities. He arrived with a little bit of money in his pocket and a cloud shrouding his person. While trolling the crime beat for The Ottawa Citizen, he had — intemperately, it must be said — published a book that named names. Hackles rose. Kneecaps were in jeopardy. Elsewhere called. Paris answered.
Time was Soft There is Mercer’s account of how Shakespeare & Company, the magnificently chaotic bookstore on the rue de la Bucherie, a mere brioche toss from Notre Dame, became his equivalent of the French Foreign Legion: a place of uncertain sanitation in which to dally until the dust settled. He was one of many such sanctuary seekers. It’s well known that George Whitman, the legendarily cantankerous, now nonagenarian proprietor of the store, made in-store beds available to young (mostly) drifters who needed a short-term place to crash and who could lend a hand for a daily hour or two with the business of keeping wholesale entropy at bibliographic bay. By Whitman’s count, as reported by Mercer, some 40,000 transients have so far laid claim to one of the Shakespeare & Company cots. (The widely circulated stories of bedbugs — a not unlikely plague, considering the circumstances — are apparently untrue.)
An international posse of impecunious, hormonally active adventurers all vying for turf in a famous bookstore ruled by a secretive, superannuated, centime-pinching, expat communist who is given to significant mood swings and capricious dismissals: It’s a regular Petri dish for comedy and romance, an urgent call to central casting, and Jeremy Mercer has done a good job of capturing the loony, sometimes desperate atmospherics of the place; at least, the place as he found it in the winter of 2000, and where he lingered into the spring.
Notable among the many are Simon, the fiftysomething poet who’s been camped out in the rare-book room for five years, a situation on the rapid wane; and Kurt, the American pretty boy and quasi-gigolo who becomes one of Mercer’s tutors in the art of cheap, nearly larcenous, living; and Nadia, Romanian-born, with whom Mercer has a casual romance, which helps her sort out her lesbian leanings.
Of course, there’s the author himself, displaced and troubled, grappling with his own truths, his future direction and a quite troubled past. Most intriguingly, there’s George Whitman, cranky and guarded, whom Mercer befriends, sort of, and whom he helps out with some family matters, seemingly to good effect, and whose reaction to the public anatomizing of some quite personal domestic matters one would really like to know. Mercer now lives in Marseilles, and may or may not have reason to fear anew for his kneecaps.
With Time was Soft There, Jeremy Mercer has found himself a win-win situation. Paris, bookstores, quirky characters, a quest for redemption: These are tested commodities, reliable tried-and-trues that readers love. You’d need to harbour a serious death wish to sabotage such a project, utterly, and while there’s surely much to like in this book, it’s too bad there’s not more to love.
There are two problems. One is the writing itself, which tends to be meandering, often digressive to no good purpose, and on the flat side of serviceable. When so much that is so distinguished has been written about la
vie bohème, you just expect more than you find on offer here. The other difficulty is fractured focus. The many strands of narrative — life in the store, life in Paris, Whitman and his history, Mercer’s own past, the many accounts of the many drifters who come briefly to roost at Shakespeare & Company — don’t come together in the name of a grand cause. They’re like separate services that the provider should deliver as a bundle, and doesn’t.
Nevertheless, as noted, bibliophiles and Parisophiles, who are often one and the same, will find much here that’s worthwhile. And in a way, the shortcomings could even be said to be apt: The book, like the city, doesn’t quite deliver on everything it promises.
Bill Richardson is a writer and broadcaster in Vancouver.
The Chicago Tribune
“Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.”
(St. Martin’s Press, $23.95)
City Lights in San Francisco notwithstanding, the most famous bookstore in the world is probably Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, that legendary literary hole founded by Sylvia Beach and once the literary haunt of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and many others. In 1999, Canadian journalist Jeremy Mercer found himself in Paris, escaping from a life in his native Ottawa that had become rather messy. The bookstore that Mercer tumbled across was still a literary haven, but since the 1950s it has been run by George Whitman, an American iconoclast who invites writers down on their luck to stay–free of charge. In return, the residents were asked to help with chores. Since welcoming his first “guest,” playwright Paul Abelman in August 1951, Whitman has housed (by his own estimate) a mind-boggling 40,000 writers. If lost souls and poor writers were Whitman’s specialty, then Mercer was in the right place. Mercer is a fine writer with a keen and jaundiced eye. (ISBN: 0-312-34739-1)
Newsweek – November 28, 2005 issue
There were many signs that Jeremy Mercer, a rookie crime reporter at the Ottawa Citizen, was heading down a dangerous road. In his memoir, “Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.” (260 pages. St. Martin’s Press), blood-spattered crime scenes, at first sickening to him, have become intriguing. He argues that begging mothers for pictures of their murdered children is a public service to readers. He binges on alcohol and drugs. His girlfriend leaves. But the final sign arrives in the form of a phone call from a source—a well-connected ex-con “accustomed to violence”—furious with Mercer for publishing his name. He shouts about a baseball bat and knees. Mercer flees to Paris.
His exile starts out rough. He can touch all four walls of his room without moving. Punks burn his hair on a bus. The frustrating boredom of aimlessness sets in. His money dwindles. Then one lonely afternoon, a cloudburst turns Mercer’s luck. To keep dry, he ducks into a dilapidated shop. It turns out to be Shakespeare and Company, a charming, labyrinthine bookstore-commune with free, bedbug-ridden cots for literary-minded foreigners, lorded over by an American expat named George Whitman who is pushing 90. Mercer promptly moves in. His memoir reads like a fast-paced novel, driven by the tragicomic adventures of the shop’s struggling inhabitants: a poet, a screenwriter, a military deserter, a translator of restaurant menus, a novelist, a sculptor, a hippie, a teacher of Chinese, a copywriter and the daughter Whitman fathered at the age of 69.
But the memoir is much more than an entertaining romp through Parisian literary bohemia at the turn of the millennium. “Time Was Soft There” will likely be the last firsthand account of an aging legend. Whitman, after failing as a writer, dedicated more than half a century to aiding other writers in his “socialist utopia that masquerades as a bookstore.” He has lodged some 40,000 people, including such household names as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Richard Wright, William Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell and Allen Ginsberg. He is an erratic eccentric: a kind father figure who feeds and shelters broke writers; a dictator who throws objects at guests and orders them to read books of his choosing; an over-the-shoulder editor who enjoins writers to employ “cannonball” diction; a wealthy spendthrift who rummages in the trash for food but loses bank notes stashed behind books. (Mice get one of the wads, shredding it “to make a nest worth more than three thousand dollars.”)
Whitman has led a surprisingly secret life. But Mercer, a journalist who learned to listen, became his confidant. He tells the tale of a man who never forgot his youthful passion for communism, who believed that “the stronger the community, the stronger the individual,” who became arguably the world’s greatest patron to writers. Now one of them has graciously repaid the favor
BOOKS, BAGUETTES AND BEDBUGS
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99
By the end of this memoir, it is difficult to like either the author or the subject. Mercer is a Canadian crime reporter who flitted his native city to wind up in Shakespeare & Co, the notoriously bohemian Parisian bookshop just a stone’s throw from Notre Dame. There, he got to know the owner, reconciled him with his daughter, endured his old hippie tantrums and had a few typically louche encounters.
Famed as a haven for the aspiring, Mercer shows – not least by his own book – the sadly low rate of success such ventures inspire. The conjunction of self-absorption and anecdotes about the unknown makes this a singularly tiresome read. What might have been an adequate article about the Left Bank is overdrawn at book length.
Richmond Times-Dispatch – November 20
NONFICTION: Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn At Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer
BY DOUG CHILDERS SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
262 pages, St. Martin’s Press, $23.95
For many writers who admire the literary giants of modernism and we don’t need to list anyone past Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, do we? — traveling to Paris can feel like a holy pilgrimage.
That’s not how it started out for Jeremy Mercer, though.
Mercer, the author of “Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.,” was simply a crime reporter for a newspaper in a midsize Canadian town, and from what he writes in his superbly entertaining memoir, he cared less about Hemingway than he did about getting the details of horrific crimes into print before his competitors did.
Then he broke a cardinal rule of journalism: He named a source who had requested anonymity. Even worse, the source was a criminal with a violent streak, and he vociferously threatened Mercer’s life when he learned about the indiscretion.
Mercer took it seriously enough to buy a one-way ticket to Paris. He arrived just in time for the Millennium celebration.
For a while, the change of scenery was great. Then that pesky matter of money came up, and Mercer found himself in a bind.
That’s when he stumbled into a Paris landmark, the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, and found himself invited to tea. Modernists take note: the book he bought on that first trip was aptly chosen: Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Serendipitously, he discovered that the bookstore’s cranky American owner allowed writers to sleep in the rambling bookstore’s rooms for free.
While many writers stay in the bookstore for only a week or so, Mercer ended up living among the books for several months, during which he became a trusted confidant of the bookstore’s 86-year-old owner, as well as a friend to the colorful characters who called the bookstore home.
Here’s the catch: Readers whose eyes light up when they see “Shakespeare & Co.” in this book’s subtitle should note that the bookstore where Mercer stayed is not, in fact, the original store Sylvia Beach made famous in the 1920s by, among other things, publishing Joyce’s masterpiece, “Ulysses.” Beach’s store closed in 1941 when the Nazis occupied Paris, and the current bookstore’s owner simply changed the name of his store as homage after Beach’s death.
Still, the philosophy and love of the printed word that drove Beach’s store lives on in the new location, and reading Mercer’s account of his Paris sojourn often provokes images of Paris’ glory days during the rise of the modernist movement.
Of course, neither Hemingway nor Joyce arrived in Paris with death threats close on their heels, but that only makes Mercer’s engagingly written account more satisfying.
Doug Childers is a Richmond writer and editor.
OTTAWA CITIZEN – November 6
To be young and in Paris
A wayward soul finds redemption in a Left Bank bookshop
The Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, November 06, 2005
Time Was Soft There: A Paris
Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co.
By Jeremy Mercer
New York: St. Martin’s Press
$31.95; 256 pages
- – -
Paris has to be one of the most “remembered” cities in the world. I need only glance at my bookshelves to realize how often I keep returning, at least imaginatively, to a city I first visited 30 years ago.
Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, Stanley Karnow’s Paris in the Fifties, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Edmund White’s The Flaneur, John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Notebooks, and, my favourite, Elliot Paul’s classic, The Last Time I Saw Paris; they all testify to an enduring fascination with the City of Light. And now I have another book for my collection: Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co.
Mercer, a former Citizen police reporter, has written an evocative, funny and romantic account of his time among the artists, eccentrics and sundry down-and-outers who congregate in and around George Whitman’s famous Left Bank bookshop. For anyone who’s been to Paris, especially when they were young, Mercer’s memoir of his months as Whitman’s clerk, confidante and general dogsbody is a pleasant dose of nostalgia. For those who’ve never lived in Paris, well, you’ll wonder if you should take a detour on the career path.
Mercer is certainly no careerist. On the eve of the new millennium, with his 29th birthday looming, he fled a life in Ottawa that was, as he relates in
the opening chapter, slipping out of control. Suffice it to say, police reporting got to him and he bailed. So, with three days left in the 20th century, Mercer found himself stalking Paris, nearly broke and practically homeless. By the end of the book, he — and the reader — realizes it was the best thing that could have happened.
The story, of course, is what happens between Mercer’s fall and his redemption. That’s where the bookshop comes in. One day he finds shelter from the rain in the musty stacks of Shakespeare and Company. A pretty girl invites him to a tea party. And Mercer falls — or, more accurately, leaps — down the rabbit hole to find salvation in serving the elderly mad hatter who owns the place. After more than 50 years, Shakespeare and Company is an institution along Rue de la Bucherie, near Place St. Michel. To be sure, it is not the shop’s original site. Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate, opened the original store elsewhere on the Left Bank in the 1920s. Before the Second World War, the bookshop attracted the likes of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound. It was shuttered during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and after the war Beach decided to retire. But in 1951, George Whitman, a peripatetic American in his late 30s, opened the doors again, this time in a shop across the Seine from Notre Dame.
For the past half-century, as Mercer relates, Shakespeare and Company has “served as a haven for artists, writers and other wayward souls of Paris.”
Along the way, Whitman has acquired a reputation for his socialist-inspired generosity in providing thousands of passing-through-Paris travellers a place to sleep and a bite to eat. By the time Mercer attends a tea party in January 2000, Whitman was “telling people he’d let 40,000 people sleep in his store.”
Mercer is offered sleeping space in the fiction room in exchange for working as Whitman’s factotum. And from that point, Time was Soft There unwinds as a series of graceful and poignant vignettes and character sketches of his months among the Whitman menagerie. There’s Simon, an aging British poet, desperate for recognition; Kurt, a handsome, if oddly tattooed American who’s an incorrigible flirt; Pia, a blond beauty epitomizing Parisian style. But the central character, of course, is Whitman who, at 86, presides over his collection of puzzled soul with benign, if befuddled, tyranny. As he puts it, “I run a socialist utopia that masquerades as a bookstore.”
Mercer does his boss gentle justice, weaving Whitman’s life-story – a fascinating study in how fulfilling life can be if you aren’t afraid to leave the career-and-mortgage path — into a colourful narrative of quarrelling friends, naive and sentimental lovers, bar-hopping hilarity and storytelling on the Seine. Sometimes somebody even sells a book. Best of all, though, as a constant backdrop, there’s Paris. Mercer demonstrates a deft gift for capturing the feel of the city in his concrete descriptions.
Take, for example, this brushstroke scene of emerging from a bar in the early morning hours: “Outside, the streetlights reflected off the damp paving stones, a crescent moon hung over Notre Dame, whispers of mist rose up from the Seine. We couldn’t be blamed for thinking the world revolved around us.” Such images reveal Mercer as a flaneur at heart, someone who, in Edmund White’s words, “finds himself lured on by the steeple looming over the next block of houses, by the toy shop on the next corner, the row of antique stores, the shady little square.”
Mercer recognizes instinctively that to be young and in Paris is to live “a dream of excellence and beauty,” to borrow John Glassco’s phrase. Of course, as Glassco noted, the dream of Paris as the Great Good Place is utterly unreal. Still, what is your youth if not a time out of reality, a time for dreaming? And that is the poignant charm of Mercer’s memoir: Like so many before him, he discovered there’s no better place to be young than the City of Light. No wonder there are so many books written about Paris.
Robert Sibley, a writer (and one-time police reporter) for the Citizen, sometimes regrets leaving Paris, or London, or …
OK! Magazine – Book Pick
Having fled Canada to escape gangsters, crime reporter Jeremy Mercer found himself penniless, homeless and friendless on the streets of Paris. Stumbling upon the famed bookstore Shakespeare & Co., the budding writer is invited inside only to become an unpaid employee in exchange for a place to live and spend time. Mercer’s recollections of the people he encounters make for a truly unforgettable memoir.
WALL STREET JOURNAL – October 29, 2005
Down, Not Out
Time Was Soft There
By Jeremy Mercer
St. Martin’s, 262 pages, $23.95
By Ben Downing
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN known to make a beeline for Paris for all sorts of romantic
reasons, but Jeremy Mercer’s was unusual. A Canadian crime writer, Mr.
Mercer had foolishly divulged the name of one of his sources, a local thief,
who later threatened him. Panicked, Mr. Mercer fled, on a whim, to Paris,
where his meager savings soon ran out. Luckily he found his way to the
city’s Anglophone refuge of last resort: Shakespeare & Co., the bookstore
just across from Notre Dame that for decades has also served as a flophouse
for aspiring writers, lost souls and mere spongers.
Although unaccustomed to la vie bohème, Mr. Mercer soon fell into the
offbeat rhythm of the place, where he spent several months. He also became a
favorite of its proprietor, George Whitman – no relation to Walt, though “he
often passed himself off as the poet’s illegitimate grandchild.” Mr. Whitman
had opened the store in 1951, calling it Le Mistral at first and then
renaming it more than a decade later after the death of Sylvia Beach. It was
she who had famously owned the original Shakespeare & Co., elsewhere in
Paris, where James Joyce and others had found a home and a publisher. It is
hard not to see Mr. Whitman’s name-grabbing as a shrewd ploy to capture
Despite such commercial instincts, Mr. Whitman is a diehard communist
who lives by the mantra “Give what you can, take what you need,” and some of
his guests, Mr. Mercer discovers, take a bit extra, not scrupling to help
themselves to wads of francs from the till. But a general bonhomie prevails,
and Mr. Mercer comes to enjoy life among the store’s ever-mutating nomad
population. “I’d return to the bookstore,” he writes, “to find a new body
drooling on my pillow, and I would just offer him another blanket.”
Anyone writing about Paris must negotiate a minefield of clichés as
dense and treacherous as the dog excrement that befouls the city’s
sidewalks. Unavoidably, “Time Was Soft There” has its share of baguettes and
smoky cafés and at least one use of the dread epithet “City of Light.” But
Mr. Mercer writes with enough flair to keep us from minding, and the milieu
he evokes, while a long way from that of the Lost Generation, has its own
Mr. Downing is a writer in New York.
PUBLISHING NEWS – Friday, July 29, 2005
A Canadian crime reporter who came to loathe his nightmarish job and felt
his life under threat from a criminal, fled penniless to Paris in a panic
three days before the millennium. Fate drew him to the eccentric Left Bank
bookshop Shakespeare and Company with its Alice in Wonderland Sunday tea
parties, at which he learned the quixotic owner, octogenarian George
Whitman, allows impoverished expatriates to live for free amid the bedlam of
books. Mercer’s encounters with other drifters in residence and growing
acquaintance with Whitman show a Bohemian side to Paris that, amazingly,
still thrives. Although not a complete newcomer in that he wrote some true
crime books in Canada, Mercer’s debut in Europe is a fascinating odyssey
into a historic bookstore as well as a confessional autobiography about
troubles with alcohol and drugs.
BOOKLIST – October 15, 2005
Mercer, Jeremy. Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.
Nov. 2005. 256p. St. Martin’s, $23.95 (0-312-34739-1). 381.
Penniless and hungry, Jeremy Mercer stumbled into a seedy bookstore on the
Left Bank of Paris to escape the rain. He ended up staying there for four
months. The bookstore is the legendary Shakespeare and Company, established
by George Whitman, whose motto is “Take what you need, and give what you
can.” Using the name of the store founded by Sylvia Beach and publisher of
Joyce’s Ulysses, Whitman vowed to always have a pot of soup on the stove and
a bed to share. For decades, wandering writers have found their way to his
store for a meal and a bed before moving on. In Mercer’s case, fleeing a
death threat brought on by his crime reporting in Ottawa, Canada, he finds
much more than shelter. Soon after his arrival, he becomes Whitman’s
confidant and sometime adviser. From the other residents he learns the
cheapest places to eat, free showers, bars that stay open all night, and
deep, abiding friendships. His experiences change his life forever, and his
stories will leave the reader wishing for such an idyllic sojourn.
LIBRARY JOURNAL – October 2005
MERCER, JEREMY. Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co.
ST. MARTIN’S. NOV. 2005. C.256P. ISBN 0-312-34739-1. $23.95.
Former journalist and novelist Mercer (High Times and Sweet Crimes) is broke and on
the run. So he leaves Canada, ending up in Paris, where he takes refuge at
Shakespeare & Co., a bookstore renowned for its literary history and promise
to house writers free of charge in exchange for their work. The list of “so
and so slept here” reads like a who’s who of literature. Mercer tells an
enchanting story of his stay at the shop, the people he meets, and the
relationships he forges there. But he doesn’t overromanticize the
experience: The title refers to soft time, as in soft jail time (as opposed
to hard jail time). The store is not the easiest place to live; for that
matter, having no money is not an easy way to live-but it could be worse.
This book explores the sometimes dramatic dynamics of several creative
personalities living under one roof. It is also about people finding their
own way, in their own time, and in their own style. Mercer subtly entwines
readers in the residents’ lives, making them feel as though they are
actually there. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries
-Jamie Engle, Richardson, TX
PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY – August 22, 2005
Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co.
Jeremy Mercer. St. Martin’s, $23.95 (256p) ISBN 0-312-34739-1
Mercer explains his memoir’s title this way: “Hard time goes slowly and
painfully and leaves a man bitter…. Time at Shakespeare and Company was as
soft as anything I’d ever felt.” His graceful narrative follows struggling
writers as they live on potato soup and dreams at Paris’s famous expatriate
bookshop. Mercer, a former Ottowa Citizen crime reporter, finds himself at
Shakespeare one gloomy Parisian day in 1999, in his late 20s, with not much
money and no plans for the future, trying to evade some angry newspaper
sources back home. With little fanfare, he is taken into the store by its
owner, George Whitman, a kindly yet scatterbrained man, who explains, “I run
a socialist utopia that masquerades as a bookstore.” Mercer begins working
as an eager unpaid employee, running errands, acting as a referee between
the writers who hang out there and ringing up sales (it’s no B&N superstore:
when Mercer asks where the credit card machine is, he’s told, “Dude,
Shakespeare and Company doesn’t even have a telephone. Of course we don’t
take credit cards”). Mercer portrays the assorted characters and their
adventures with an eye for detail and a wry sense of humor. Francophile book
lovers will enjoy his finely crafted memoir. Agent, Kristin Lindstrom.
KIRKUS REVIEWS – August 15, 2005
Copyright 2005, VNU eMedia Inc. All rights reserved.
A Canadian journalist who lived for a time at famed Parisian bookstore
Shakespeare and Co. tells the story of its iconoclastic owner and his
destitute but mostly merry band of boarders.
Reporting on crime in Ottawa was getting Mercer down, so when he
received what could have been a death threat one night from a
disgruntled subject of one of his stories, the author was more than
ready to leave his old life and flee to Paris. The City of Light was
charming, and Mercer wasn’t ready to leave when the money ran out, so he
did what countless other writers had done before him: shacked up at the
Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, trading a little bit of service in the
store for a bed (but not a bath-ablutions were performed at the spacious
facilities of a nearby cafe). There Mercer got to know owner George
Whitman and many of the characters who over the years drifted into the
store and never left. Luckily for the literary freeloaders, Whitman (no
relation to Walt) was a committed, lifelong communist, a man determined
to put his ideals into action by sharing what he had-a roof-with the
have-nots. Mercer, a fresh and eager face, quickly became the old man’s
confidante. He learned about Whitman’s personal history, his goals for
the store and the idiosyncratic methods of penny-pinching that allowed
him to operate a free hostel for the well-read set. Mercer is a genial,
wide-eyed guide to the wild crew at the store, and although he
eventually became somewhat disillusioned with Whitman, his affection and
admiration for what the man has accomplished are clear.
Literary gossip, and catnip for book junkies.