Time Was Soft There (A Paris Sojourn At Shakespeare & Co.)

Time Was Soft There - a memoir by Jeremy Mercer

Mr. Mercer was a journalist for the Ottawa Citizen when he got into a sticky situation over a broken promise concerning a name he was not to publish. The injured party was threatening repercussions so Mercer decided it was a good time to get out of the country for awhile. He wound up in Paris, and eventually on the doorstep of "Shakespeare & Co.", an English bookstore on the Left Bank, just across from Notre Dame.

The elderly proprietor of the bookstore, unkempt, unconventional George Whitman, ran his shop as part store, part hostel for down and out writers/artists who needed a place to sleep till they got on their feet. George's motto was "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise". Living conditions were well below basic, so no one stayed there who had anyplace else at all to go. Cockroaches, grime and practically non-existent plumbing would not be appealing to anyone who could afford better.

George was a mentor, in a rough sort of way, to his guests, a complicated curmudgeon who would ride roughshod over a thin skin. But for anyone who would pay attention, he was full of stories about writers whose names you will know, books, life, people. There wasn't much on which he didn't have an opinion. And sometimes he had some pretty good advice.

Mercer says "Watching him live was a daily lesson in parsimony", which could have it's good and bad aspects. Saving money on haircuts by using matches to burn your hair to the desired length seems a little extreme, but if you spit out the bones in his philosophy there's some pretty good meat to chew on:

"'People all tell me they work too much, that they need to make more money.', George told me. 'What's the point? Why not live on as little as possible and then spend your time with your family, or reading Tolstoy or running a bookstore? It doesn't make any sense.'"

There's a lot going on in this book and it's a hard one to put down. Still there is a peacefulness about it that comes from Mercer's writing - I do love a book written by a good journalist who knows how to say complex things with simple words - and from the laid back lifestyle he adopted at the shop.

There are friendships, romances, personality clashes, hope, despair, George's reconnection with his estranged daughter, and his tempting views on communism - true communism, not the Russian or Chinese varieties. In George's words: "Communism just means thinking about the community first." Idealistic, but we could all do with a noble ideal or two.

Running through the entire story are the books. Books being read and books being written. Old books and new books. Books being discovered for the first time and long-time favourites being reread. Books, glorious books! Wouldn't you just love to drown in them?

In the event I've been unclear, I love this book. Do read it and let me know what you think. I think it's a treasure.

PS - When I looked up George Whitman online, I was saddened to hear that he passed away just before Christmas this past year, in his nineties. I'm sure he will be greatly missed by the many grateful people who found shelter and breathing room under his roof. George's daughter, Sylvia, now carries on the great tradition of Shakespeare & Co.


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