Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs – Jeremy Mercer

ExcitementFoodInfestations‘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.

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50 Replies to “Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs – Jeremy Mercer”

  1. Well this is going straight on my Christmas wish list! I love Shakespeare & Company – the labyrinthine interior, the ethos, and the history. All the politics currently filling my head makes the thought of dropping out for a while with this quite appealing!

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    1. I didn’t even read the title, I started reading the back and was sold on it straight away. Politics? Is that still going on, it is appropraite that I have just embarked on an 800 book of Christopher Hitchens essays in that case.

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    1. Kind of you to say, I felt a bit rusty, it’s weird to think it’s been a month. I read it in a couple of sittings, it really made me think about life and appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. I can totally relate! I was lagging so terribly behind that I left around 3 dozen or so books to be reviewed later. For now, I’m reviewing only my latest reads. Will catch up​ with the others later on.

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            1. I’m not that far behind but I wish you look in your endeavours, I have picked up a thick book so I can take my time with it and get down the pile so not too many are added in the meantime.

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                1. Excellent! I haven’t visited anyone in a while so hoping to do so over the weekend, time is against me today with my 3-11 shift at work ruining my blog reading time.

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t even know about such a bookstore. But yet was happy to know they reopened one. 🙂
    Your review makes it appear like a really quick and jolly read. I’ll try and look for it online. Ain’t no shops around my place where I can find it.

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    1. It has that classic writer’s life situation and the positive effects that can come from having to band together from being poor. It won’t take you long to get through and being a bookshop, I know your imagination will take over and wander all over the place.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As promising as it sounds, it’d be a regret to not have it soon. I hope I find a copy. I so envy you for all the great books you have your hands on. J 🙂

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        1. I can’t help but stockpile them, I need more room though but it forces me to be creative with space. I am sure you will be able to find yourself an online copy.

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  3. Ah, good old Shakespeare & Co! My husband and I used to visit Paris every year before we moved north and the exchange rate tanked. A noodle on the left bank was an essential part of every trip. And what could be better than a book about books, and all things bookish. No rust in evidence, by the way.

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    1. I’m glad I’ve hit the ground running then, thanks! Perhaps you need another trip? It would be great to go there and even better to stay as well. The nomadic life would be a wonderful thing for a while.

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  4. Well, now, Ste J, who’s going to bell the cat, as the fable about the committee of mice goes? I think that since you are the one who noticed that the book doesn’t describe adequately the books in the shop, or anything romantic about their provenance, that you should be the one to do so. Maybe an assignment, your next trip….to Paris? Heh-heh!

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    1. An interesting suggestion, believe it or not, Paris has never appealed to me, not sure why. However it would be nice to wander over and spend some time there and of course getting the Chunnel will mean no weight charges which is a great bonus.

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  5. Outside of the (EEK) bedbugs (hygiene part), it sounds wonderful!
    I have read posts about this bookstore, and it is a romantic entity that must survive the digital age.
    I’m surprised no one else has used it for a backdrop.

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    1. The digital age with regards to books takes all of the romance and socialising out of it, it would be a loss to lose local bookshops and it makes me wonder how many anecdotes about S&C are out there, it would be worth hunting for more books about the place. Rest easy bedbugs (and cockroaches) are barely mentioned.

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      1. Cockroaches!!!!!!!!!!! Yuch!!! Don’t get me wrong, I wish them not to be extinct, but eeyyech! Brrr! Get out of my stocking drawer! Get out of my make-up bag, and really ….. please get out of my kitchen! (Not you, the Roach Family!)

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    1. Thank you my friend, I worried I wouldn’t be up to my usual standard to begin with. Being about books and travel, you can’t go far wrong with it, well worth tracking down the effort to track down.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Good review. Re bookstores, I just posted a photo of a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls from Ecclesiastes where it was decided that too many books had already been written. All those scrolls were crowding the cave.

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    1. It would be nice to catch up with all the books written, adding more each day just means my quest to read everything is ruined on a daily basis and that is so disheartening. I suppose that cave was the earliest form of internet though.

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  7. My parents visited this Bookstore and as far as I am concerned it is a very special, bohemian place… Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe it also shows up in one of Woody Allen´s movies, which occurs in Paris…
    I loved your review my friend… these lines truly resonated with me:
    `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´…
    Thanks so much for sharing… Sending love and best wishes. Aquileana 😙

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    1. I have never seen any Woody Allen films, I spend too much time in books to be watching films these days. It is a great backdrop for a film, or indeed for anything! I am on a quest to find more great bookshop books now.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. After reading your review, I immediately checked it at Amazon. Someone said there “Love the show,.would love the recipes at hand to inspire my cooking!”. My initial impression was I thoroughly misunderstood your review 😛

    I would have to check out this one just because I love Paris so much even though I haven’t been there. Also, I have bought Fall of the Stone City and just finished reading it. Quite captivating. Thanks for reviewing it. I had never heard of Ismail Kadare.

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    1. I’m glad I could steer you over to Kadare, he wasn’t an author I was familiar with until surfing blogs and then I had to have it., I love the mixture of real life and superstitious myth. Sometimes taking a wander around Google maps is almost a decent window into a city, I love that we take cities and regions we have never been to into our hearts and have a real affinity with.

      I love finding the random, wrongly posted comments on Amazon and such, cooking and bedbugs don’t go together…although I wonder if anybody has tried it…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have been to Shakespeare & Company, so am quite keen on reading this, especially given what you’ve said about the book. It’s always nice to read something set in a far off place that you once visited 🙂 Great review!

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    1. I must have been lucky picking this one up so cheaply, I thought I had picked it up in Boston but it turned out that I actually got it at Oxfam instead. Part of the fun of book shopping is hunting them out…it’s a classier Pokémon Go in my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Time Was Soft There!? Good Lord!
    I was never particularly interested in Paris but I would go for Shakespeare and Company only.
    I wonder about an amount of bad writing produced in such a place.. Hah..

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    1. It is a cringeworthy title, it’s up there with You Are Awful (but I Like You) in the pantheon of terrible travel book titles. Paris has never been high on my to visit list but the bookshop is a big draw…imagine writing there, it would be beautiful to do a blog post from there if nothing else.

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      1. I have never heard of this one either – it’s hilarious! Are you maybe keeping a list of horrible titles? It might come handy at times of gray skies and lousy moods..
        I would love to own a little place not unlike Shakspeare and Company one day.

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        1. I try and forget the bad titles, they don’t improve my mood at all lol. If you get a Shakespeare & Co before I do then I will be a regular no matter where you are.

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