After fleeing Canada for Paris in 1999, crime reporter Jeremy Mercer has no clear idea of where to go with his life. A casual stop at the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience, which Mercer documents in Time Was Soft There.
Modeled after Sylvia Beach’s original bookstore of the same name, which closed during World War II, George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in the Left Bank neighborhood of Paris has been a haven for poor artists and writers to live and work for over 40 years. Just as Beach’s store attracted such literary legends as Hemingway and Joyce, over the years guests to Whitman’s store have included Richard Wright, Allen Ginsburg, and Anais Nïn. Whitman, now 93, is officially retired, but still remains active in running the store.
Even though its literary heyday was in the 1960s, Whitman’s store remains a refuge for “lost souls and poor writers.” Fitting this definition, Mercer goes on to live at Shakespeare & Co. for several months. His stay is a tale of the bohemian lifestyle—roaming Paris, writing, bumming food and the occasional odd job. Mercer provides colorful descriptions of his developing relationship with Whitman and the myriad characters that come and go from the bookstore. Using a crime writer analogy to describe his days, Mercer contrasts the prison expression of “hard time” with the “soft time” of bookstore life: “time that went easily, time that was a pleasure to do. Time at Shakespeare & Co. was as soft as anything I’d ever felt.”
Even though Mercer remembers his days lyrically and favorably, he doesn’t lapse into romanticism or idealism. The descriptions of Mercer’s idyllic way of life are balanced with the not-so-utopian realities of bookstore life: rivalries with other writers, infrequent showers, and guests who take advantage of Whitman’s philosophy of “give what you can, take what you need.”
Mercer’s memoir is an intriguing read for any bibliophile or aspiring writer. Reading it offers a glimpse of the magic Shakespeare & Co. has brought to those who’ve been a part of it. While Mercer acknowledges that the store has changed over the years with increased tourism and changes in the neighborhood, he celebrates the store’s idealistic spirit and shows that it still continues today.
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