by Jeremy Mercer
St. Martin’s Press
rating: 4 out of 5
It is such a tangled web to discover how I come to find certain books to add to my TBR pile. The web for this delightful little memoir began last week when I read Fleur Fisher’s list of books she read to complete the In Their Shoes Challenge. Out of the 18 books read, I was immediately drawn to the one entitled, Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co. Fortunately she provided the link to her review and even though she gave it a mediocre rating, I was still intrigued. I have been to Paris twice, but have never had the opportunity to visit the famous landmark, and the title of book was simply irresistible. However, when I tried to check it out from my own local library, I discovered the American title for this book is, Time was Soft There. I came home, opened the book to the first page, and was immediately drawn into the author’s story.
It was a gray winter Sunday when I came into the bookstore.As had been my habit during that troubled time, I was out walking. There was never a specific destination, merely an accumulation of random turns and city blocks to numb the hours and distract from the problems at hand. It was surprisingly easy to forget oneself among the bustling markets and grand boulevards, the manicured parks and marble monuments. (first paragraph).
Immediately I was transported to the cobblestone walkways of Paris, imagining the Eiffel Tower in the distance, the Seine flowing down the center of the city, and the outdoor cafes calling my name to sit down, order a coffee, and watch the time pass slowly by. While this book does not focus on the typical tourist spots of gay Paris (Notre Dame is mentioned occasionally, but only because it is located directly across the street from the bookstore), it does focus on the eclectic group of people living in this cramped, disorganized, antiquated bookstore who have such a passion for writing and books that it appears to transcend all other problems in life.
There is something rather romantic in the notion of fleeing the rat-race of America and escaping to Europe to follow the passion of one’s heart. The willingness to leave all material possessions behind for the pursuit of an artistic lifestyle seems to tug at my heartstrings. Yet as I read the details of this kind of existence — living with other strangers on a lumpy mattress on a dirty hardwood floor with the only communal bathroom caked with urine on the walls, I am quickly brought back to the reality that this would not be the life for me.
This is a true story of how a Canadian newspaper reporter, receiving death threats from a former informant, flees his country and winds up in Paris with little money and no emotional resources. The walk along the streets at the beginning of the book leads him to the famous, Shakespeare and Company bookstore where he learns that the owner, George Whitman, often provides housing for struggling writers in exchange for help around the store and the promise to read one book a day. While this arrangement is only supposed to last a week, most of those in residence stay for several months, sometimes dragging on for a year or more. I believe the author, Jeremy Mercer, stayed about 4 or 5 months.
While the author gives a personal account of his stay and the characters, or rather, people with whom he comes in contact, the true focus of the story is George Whitman — a gruff, communist octogenarian who will publicly berate anyone – but always offer the shirt off his back.
George could stretch a franc to unimaginable lengths. No piece of bread was too stale or rind of cheese too dry. Once, I was soundly berated for pouring the leftover pickle juice down the sink while washing the jar. “That’s a delicacy! I can make soup with that. I used to drink pickle juice,” George roared. “What are you? A Rockefeller?”….The practice of such discipline is how Shakespeare and Company survived, and how he was able to spend half a century feeding and housing people for free. George had discovered money to be the greatest slave master, and by reducing your dependence on it, he believed, you could loosen the grip of a suffocating world.” (page 112)
I enjoyed reading the stories of George and his tough exterior but generous interior. I enjoyed listening to the dreams and aspirations of some of the writers in residence — all passionate about the written word. There was something which captivated me as I read about the seedier side of the city — perhaps it made Paris more approachable, more real. I find the author’s writing style to be fluid, detailed, and easy to read. He has definitely instilled a desire in me to return to Paris and search out this literary landmark.
As a final note, I was curious as to how the U.S. title came to be. I mean, I totally understand the title used in Europe — Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs. Not only does it make sense, but the alliteration is memorable. It wasn’t until I was half-way with the book that the American title was explained:
In the criminal world, there is a term, hard time, which refers to difficult prison sentences in maximum-security facilities or under some form of protective custody. This is for dangerous convicts, the murderers, the sex offenders. Hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter when eventually he does get released into the world.At the opposite end of the spectrum were the medium-and minimum-security facilities, which were designed to rehabilitate offenders. Here there were libraries and weight-training rooms, high school equivalency classes and floor-hockey tournaments. One institution I visited had a farm inside the barbed wire where the inmates worked in the fields and provided fruit, vegetables, and eggs for the prison. Another prison had a baseball team that toured the region – playing in a community beer league. This was known as soft time, time that went easily, time that was a pleasure to do.Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I’d ever felt (pages 171-172).
I could say the same for the reading of this book. It was soft time — time went easily, slowly, and it was quite enjoyable. And when I finished the book, I had indeed learned something about myself and humanity as a whole.