Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.
St. Martin’s Press, 2005

Well, how can you not like a book that begins with “It was a grey winter Sunday when I came to the bookstore.”

What better sort of grey winter Sunday could make such appealing subject matter?

But Time Was Soft There is not simply about the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, and I hadn’t paid much attention to that in plucking this book from the Bookish Books shelf.

I was thinking of the fascinating stories I’d heard about the Shakespeare & Co. shop, about Hemingway and Fitzgerald, about Stein and Pound, about the ambitious and risky publication and distribution of James Joyce’s Ulysses (some of these appearing in other Bookish Friday books I’ve been reading, including John Baxter’s Pound of Paper and Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop): maybe you’ve heard some of these too.

But these stories were about the original incarnation of this Paris bookstore, rather than about Jeremy Mercer’s experience at another bookstore. The subject of Mercer’s book is a shop inspired by Sylvia Beach’s store, one actually named after it, one which enveloped her stock when she died in 1962.

So, really, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but, nonetheless, once I settled into the idea of Time Was Soft There being other than I had expected, it read quickly and easily.

Jeremy Mercer actually found himself in this store unexpectedly as well. George Whitman often made space for writers in his bookstore (originally this took the form of a small and highly uncomfortable room behind the shop, with soup provided, but as the bookstore grew, the accommodations became more liveable and his reputation grew), and Jeremy Mercer needed a place to stay in Paris, having left his job as a Canadian journalist suddenly in the wake of a sorta-scandal.

The beds in what George referred to as The Tumbleweed Hotel included one in the antiquarian room, two in the main part of the bookstore on the main floor, six in the library, four in third-floor apartment (and there were several other corners that could house someone if required, so that twenty people could stay at the height of the summer when space was most in demand), and Mercer was lucky to be granted the antiquarian room in which to write and work.

“Every few minutes, the door swung open and there was a visiting American scholar searching for original translations of Zola, an ornithologist with a question about a rare seventeenth-century birding guide, a lost Australian physicist wondering how to get to the Panthéon so she could pay homage to the Curies.” (90)

Mercer seems to thrive on the element of the unexpected, both in and out of the antiquarian room, and in the store’s social milieu. “Readings have been organized at the bookstore since the doors first opened and everyone from William Saroyan to William Styron has held literary court in the upstairs library. Shakespeare and Company’s reputation for attracting quality readers and discerning ears was once so great that in Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, a young writer is humiliated when he fails to impress the bookstore audience.” (130)

For another reader, Mercer’s story itself might have been as fascinating as I found the bookish bits. Certainly his background is interesting (from an arrest for assault as a teenager to the challenges he faced as a young crime reporter in a capital city) and I got a good chuckle out of realizing the genesis of the book’s subtitle. (It’s based on the fact that “hard time” refers to difficult prison sentences, those served in maximum-security prisons or under protective custody, whereas “soft time” refers to that served in to medium- and minimum-security facilities which focus on rehabilitation, which is a pleasure to serve: “Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I’d ever felt.” (172))

I certainly share the author’s fondness for an influential gathering place, for a book-stuffed bookshop, but I can’t help wishing that there had been as many books in this story as there were in the store itself. What I certainly can relate to is the idea of bookstores being agents of change, particularly for the bookishly inclined. Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co. definitely filled that role and some would argue that her efforts permanently altered the landscape of English letters if only via her efforts in aiding Ulysses into the reading world.

George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co. seemingly filled that role as well, not only for Jeremy Mercer, but for a number of people who pass through the pages of Time Was Soft There.

Note: This counts towards the 2010 Bibliophiliac Challenge. Have these Fridays been adding to your TBR lists? Have you been reading some bookish books of your own?