A bookshop that allows you to move in and live there after closing time? In Paris? Once home to literary giants of the 20th century? Run by a communist since the Macarthy trials era?
Hard to resist getting stuck into this book, not least because I’m currently writing a book called How to Get Your Self-Published Book into Bookstores, one of a series of guidebooks for authors to be published by the Alliance of Independent Authors. Not the average bookshop to be targeted, perhaps, but one worth knowing more about.
(I am horrified, incidentally, to realise that despite having been to Paris about a dozen times, I’ve never yet paid it a visit in person. Adding that to my travel bucket list now!)
The Wonderful Whitman
I loved finding out more about the iconic Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and to learn more about the shop’s long-time proprietor, George Whitman, via the memoir of former journalist Jeremy Mercer, who had the extraordinary experience of living in the shop for many months as a young man.
Whitman is a fascinating, admirable though troubled man who offers refuge to Mercer, on the run from a criminal in his native Canada.
More about Mercer
In a way this book is more Mercer’s coming-of-age story, as much an autobiography of a naive and immature man finding himself as the portrait of a groundbreaking store and its proprietor.
Mercer proved a sometimes an unreliable narrator and occasionally an unlikable one. Poetic licence in memoirs is fine, but when a young Algerian with whom he has been drinking is murdered, apparently by two dubious strangers who offered to remove him from Mercer and friends’ company for being troublesome, Mercer appears to feel no remorse or compassion, which I’m sure he would have shown if the young man had been a fellow Canadian, American or European. That made uncomfortable reading.
I will however forgive him for a lesser crime – his disparaging comments about self-published books on page 37. The more discerning Whitman, older and wiser, is less judgmental, presumably knowing full well that many of the greatest authors have been self-published, including some of those who graced the earlier incarnation of his historic store.
But What About the Books?
There’s also surprisingly little in his memoir about the actual books, apart from as props in anecdotes e.g. a rare book being stolen during Mercer’s first shift behind the till. Given that Whitman’s nominal rent from his tenants is a pledge to read a book a day, and Mercer says he reads a huge amount while he was there, I was astonished that he virtually never talks about what he’s read or how it’s influenced him. We hear rather more detail about food, drink and toilets. Hmm, I wonder what Whitman would have to say about that, and whether he ever read it?
What I really want to read now is more about the store in its heyday, both in its original incarnation under founder Sylvia Beach and when George was in his prime. (There’s an interesting history brochure available from the store’s website – see below.)
And the Store’s Alumni?
I’d also like to read more about the authors and poets who went on to produce great literature during or after their stay at Shakespeare and Company. Not only do Mercer and his fellow residents seem to have little in the way of completed writing to share with the world, they also do not seem to do much actual writing, which speaks volumes for Whitman’s generosity.
Even so, I’m thankful for Mercer’s introduction and insight, I’m glad I read the book, and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves bookshops and reading, or who is interested in Parisian Left Bank culture and literary history.
For more information about Shakespeare and Company as it is now, visit their website. Considering that at the time of Mercer’s book, the store didn’t take credit cards or even have a landline telephone, the store has obviously caught up with the 21st century, but I hope without losing any of its charm.