Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Francofinn has been spoiling me with books while I recuperate, and she certainly has picked a great selection for lazy days on the sofabed. BOOKS, BAGUETTES & BEDBUGS: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co. by Jeremy Mercer is a perfect holiday or recuperative read. No need to concentrate too hard, but nevertheless well written and genuinely fascinating. Mercer is a Canadian journalist who finds himself somewhat down and out in Paris after a misstep or two in his regular world of crime reporting. The famous English language bookstore Shakespeare and Co. near Notre Dame becomes his haven. "Payment" for a bed in the shop amongst a bizarre, but very human cast of characters, requires reading a book a day, keeping the shop tidy and helping out behind the counter.

I am very fond of Paris, but have never visited Shakespeare and Co., despite knowing of its existence, I suppose because I am usually experiencing life with local French friends while there, rather than looking for something English. However, I will definitely make the effort to make a pilgrimage there next time I am in the fabulous city, if only to soak up the atmosphere (which is after all a very Parisian thing to do!).

Mercer leaves out a great deal, I suspect, but I certainly forgive him as blow-by-blow accounts of living hand to mouth can be painful (Knut Hamsun's Hunger, being a classic account). I loved the description of a stressed-out and anxious Mercer sheltering in Shakespeare and Co. during a storm. On buying a book he describes:

When it came my turn to be served, the young woman at the desk gave me a bright smile and folded open the cover of my book. With meticulous care, she stamped the title page with the crest of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Then she invited me upstairs for tea (page 3).

What more could one ask of a bookstore?!

For me, the real fascination lies in the shop itself and the unique owner, George Whitman, whose socialist beliefs are the bedrock for the unusual set-up in the shop. He claims to have homed 40 thousand people (mostly writers after a fashion) for varying lengths of time, and one feels as if it may well be true once we've gotten to know George better. I'm not sure that he's exactly likable, but his motto is "Give what you can, take what you need" which he has consistently upheld over his long life. One of the rooms in the shop is marked with the words "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise". One comes away from this book with a very real sense that cliche and tweeness have no place here, with words carefully and particularly chosen with their real meaning in mind.

P.S. For those of you in the USA, this book was published there in 2005 by St. Martin's Press under the title Time Was Soft There.



Blogger James Long said...

Sounds great. I noticed at a demo of Second Life (virtual world) that someone was giving the other day, that there's a Shakespeare and Co. in Second Life. I suspect it's been built there by the genuine shop but couldn't get the demonstrator to visit it.

The book sounds good - I've likewise been to Paris with knowledge of Sh. & Co. but have never visited it. MLW hates Paris, so I may never get there... :-(

10:07 am  
Blogger equiano said...

Hey, I just discovered a website for Shakespeare and Co. which really surprised me as I didn't think they'd be technologically organized - maybe someone staying there created it! it includes a link to panoramic photos taken inside the shop - seems an extraordinary place! We shall have to work on the lovely lady in your life and her dislike of the gorgeous Paris - I have top tips from locals who've lived there all their lives , which may yet convert her!

12:26 pm  

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