‘Shakespeare and Company’ in Paris is one of the world’s most famous bookshops. The original store opened in 1921 and became known as the haunt of literary greats, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.
Sadly the shop was forced to close in 1941, but that was not the end of ‘Shakespeare and Company’… In 1951 another bookshop, with a similar free-thinking ethos, opened on the Left Bank and, in 1964, it resurrected the name ‘Shakespeare and Company’ and became the principal meeting place for Beatnik poets, such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, through to Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell.
Today the tradition continues and writers still find their way to this bizarre establishment, one of them being Jeremy Mercer. With no friends, no job, no money and no prospects, the thrill of escape from his life in Canada soon palls but, by chance, he happens upon the fairytale world of ‘Shakespeare and Co’…
This is my first book review since June 9th, as strange as that sounds so apologies to all if I am a bit rusty at it.
Having just recently come back from being away, it is perhaps somewhat predictable that my thoughts would be on far away (or not in this case) destinations so my first review is of a travel book but in a cunning reversal, it is of a traveller crossing the opposite way over the Atlantic.
Mercer opens the book talking about the type of life he had as a crime reporter and how the job affected him. By allowing himself to be consumed with his journalistic work, his life choices became somewhat dubious and by choosing to leave that behind, he is able to look at his past mistakes with candour and clarity.
Finding his way to Shakespeare & Company soon enough is one heck of a backdrop for any book, a seeming ideal place for artists to do there work, as legend has it. It’s a setting that attracts wanderers and the lost and holds plenty of eccentricities down to its primitive toilet and the unconventional owner George, who invites people to stay on a whim.
Drifters and dreamers inhabit the shop, all of whom are characters and few ever seem to get anything creative down on paper. There is a camaraderie to the communal life, as all are sharing the kindness of strangers and beds in amongst the books. Life lacks romance for the cash strapped dwellers but that in itself is the allure for the rest of us who aren’t experiencing it. Looking at the actual day-to-day routine of Mercer’s new friends, it is hard not to feel like they are wasting their time when they have this opportunity to write but the struggle to stave off hunger and bad hygiene is a time-consuming one, as is the need for a bottle of wine or two.
The seduction of escaping the banal everyday for a more noble, bohemian and creative way of life makes it easy to forget the outside world, The bookshop is a universe unto itself orbited by various eateries, which in itself is an eye-opening list of ways to get cheap and even free meals. Strangely although Shakespeare & Company is the centre for all this activity, the books take a backseat, I was beguiled first at the descriptions of rooms full of them but they seemed to fade into the background after a while.
Mercer’s familiarity with his surroundings would have had much to do, nevertheless a few more mentions of books and the treasures stocked would have been wonderful. Paris is painted as realistic and not the place of romantic cliché but as a real city full of people doing people things. Idealism meets realism within these pages, life has a poetic side and should be shared, it’s almost a fairytale where the melancholy of life is unwelcome yet inevitable.
Overall this is a satisfying read, it’s a book to be reminded of at those times strike when we think we are drifting or unfulfilled and are alone with it. It is a look at generations, the changes and the literature produced and about redemption in unexpected places. The bittersweet mixture of experiences are what I will enjoy going back to, if nothing else for that sense of freedom, that it is possible to us if we eschew the dull jobs we grind out every day with which we have little or no enthusiasm for. This book is for the dreamer.
Whilst looking for a photo for this review I noticed that the book was reissued with a new title which I am sorry to report is a terrible: Time Was Soft There but if you see that one don’t let that ruin the book for you. My old pal Tom did an interesting post about Shakespeare & Company a while back which you can read here if you have the time or the curiosity.