Shakespeare and Company is the bookish tourist’s equivalent of Times Square. I first went to Paris in 2007, but, ingenue that I was at the time, I hadn’t yet heard of this glorious little literary Mecca. But by the time I went for my second time, about a year ago, it was at last on my to-go list. Though my husband and I attempt to seek out the truth of a city and avoid the biggest tourist traps, I couldn’t resist the lure of paying a visit to this storied and historic Left Bank book shop. Shortly thereafter I came across Time Was Soft There, writer Jeremy Mercer’s memoir of the year he spent living at Shakespeare and Company, and I was bewitched.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, Shakespeare and Company was first opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, an American expat and a member of the “Lost Generation.” The original English language bookstore was located first at 8 rue Dupuytren before moving to 12 rue de l’Odéon. It survived the Great Depression, but Beach was forced to close it down after the German invasion of France. Per Wikipedia, “Ernest Hemingway symbolically liberated the shop in person in 1944, but it never reopened for business.” (Fun side note: Hemingway mentions the shop in A Moveable Feast, a book for which, as you might have guessed, I harbor a certain fondness.)
In 1951, an American named George Whitman opened a new English language bookstore on rue de la Bûcherie, just across the street from Notre Dame (Whitman is a fascinating character in his own right). He called the shop Le Mistral, the name of the wind that passes through the Rhone valley (and affects the region’s viticulture). Beach allegedly handed the name of her shop to Whitman when the two dined together in 1958, and when she passed away in 1964, he renamed his store Shakespeare and Company (and named his daughter Sylvia).
When Whitman passed away in 2011 at the age of 98, he left behind a legion of anecdotes, legends, and, most valuable of all, friends, thanks in no small part to the shop’s open-door policy for struggling writers and other wanderers and malcontents. The store is peppered with cozy nooks and dingy but inviting beds where an endless parade of passers-through have laid and continue to lay their weary heads—some for a night, some for a month, and some, like Jeremy Mercer, for a year or more.
Time Was Soft There is Mercer’s account of how he came to spend an impoverished and life-changing year living at Shakespeare and Company. Working as a crime reporter in his native Canada, Mercer fled the country and landed in Paris after he made the mistake of crossing the wrong criminal. With little money and few connections in the City of Light, a twist of happenstance nudges him through the doors of the bookstore on a bleak winter day. After an invitation to tea in the store’s private upstairs lair, Mercer runs George Whitman’s grueling gauntlet to prove himself worthy of one of the coveted beds. In the ensuing weeks, and then months, he has what can only be described as the kind of transformative experience that is the fantasy of any English major worth her salt.
Throughout his time at Shakespeare and Company, Mercer becomes acquainted with the shop’s colorful and ever-changing cast of characters as well as Whitman’s ornery disposition, stringent demands, and relative indifference to unsanitary conditions. Whitman required his writers-in-residence to strive to read a book a day and to diligently work on their writing (he preferred to dole out his beds to published writers). These rules helped to keep Mercer grounded during an otherwise untethered year and, as evidenced by the resulting book, he used his time wisely.
In researching a few facts for this post, I discovered that the title of the book for the British market is Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs. I’m not sure I would’ve picked up that book. But the title Time Was Soft There beckoned me, and after reading the book, I especially love how Mercer arrived at it:
“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 . . . 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 . . . 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.”
Mercer’s writing is clear, vivid, insightful, and revelatory, and the ending is as satisfying as a warm croissant on a frosty Paris morning. As I’ve noted before, I have a weakness for Paris-centric books, and Time Was Soft There now stands as one of my favorites.
As for Shakespeare and Company, I feel privileged to have climbed those creaky stairs, to have seen with my own eyes the shabby beds and rickety typewriters, to have wandered the cramped aisles and inhaled the intoxicating must of well-worn, well-loved books. And on those not-so-uncommon days when I myself am feeling aimless and untethered, I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that this perfect little bookshop is out there, somewhere, waiting for me, its windows forever glowing yellow and welcoming for bookish dreamers like myself.