Monday, February 18, 2008

Eating, Sleeping and Living with Books

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: the Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer (Phoenix 2006 paperback 260 pages).

I read about this book on Ann’s Blog and was intrigued enough to read it for myself. It’s a remarkable memoir of the author’s refuge at the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. on the banks of the River Seine opposite Notre Dame. Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian crime reporter, packed his bags and headed for Paris after receiving a death threat. He arrived during the last days of 1999 and shortly afterwards found his way to Shakespeare & Co, where he was amazed to find not only is it a bookshop but also a place providing beds for a number of writers. The owner George Whitman, then 86 years old, had been inviting writers to stay in the shop since he opened it in 1951, provided they helped in the shop and read a book a day, hardly an onerous task.

Jeremy recounts how George made him welcome, how he found ways to exist on very little money, with meals from George, Sunday morning pancake breakfasts, morning ablutions at the Café Panis and baguettes (“with the occasional speck of blue-green mold on the bread”) from the Sandwich Queen. Jeremy finds friends amongst the other residents and tells of their story-telling sessions on the banks of the Seine, and other escapades, including a trip to Ireland with Simon, an English poet and long time resident at Shakespeare & Co. As the future of the shop was called into question Jeremy helps George produce a booklet on the history of Shakespeare & Co and succeeds in tracking down George’s daughter Sylvia, whom he hoped would carry on the shop in the future.

It’s full of fascinating characters - the many writers who have been connected with it including Henry Miller, Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Alan Ginsberg; the individuals living in the shop; and not forgetting perhaps the most remarkable character of all, George himself. George’s generosity is in line with the original occupants of the building, built on the foundations of a 16th century monastery. He “compares himself to the monks who used to live on the same spot, a frere lampier who keeps a light on to welcome strangers and cares for old books and lost folk with semisacred devotion.” However, as the residents of the shop change Jeremy eventually finds that it felt “strange and dislocating” when he saw new people “amok among the books” and he decided that it was time to move on.

From the website I learned that George has retired but Shakespeare & Co is still “a wonderland of books” and has a full programme of forthcoming events. The website also has a tour of the shop, showing interior and exterior views and giving details of the book readings and other events held at the shop. I would love to visit it one day.

7 comments:

Les said...

This sounds like a marvelous book for any book-lover! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. :)

Danielle said...

I have this book (different cover though) and am looking forward to reading it. A long time ago I read a memoir by Sylvia Beach--the founder of Shakespeare & Co. There is one in Vienna by the way, which I loved visiting but could never afford to buy anything!

Tara said...

I love your header photograph! This book sounds wonderful. I actually stepped inside this shop when I was in Paris on my honeymoon. I'm not sure if I felt overwhelmed (not speaking French, I often felt out of sorts in the shops) or if we were running late for something, but I only stayed for a moment. I'd love to spend more time there someday. There is scene at the beginning of the film Before Sunset that takes place in the bookshop that is fun to watch.

Lisa said...

Wow, what a great book. I had never heard of this before now. Thanks for sharing it. I've been to the website now and fell in love.

BooksPlease said...

Les, I do hope you enjoy it.

Daniells, I didn't know about the one in Vienna -sounds expensive!

Tara, I'm envious, I'd love to go there, and I know just what you mean about being overwhelmed - I can't remember much of the French I learnt at school.

Lisa, I think the website must be the next best thing to an actual visit.

Table Talk said...

I'd love to visit, but I don't think I could move in. George would have given me a fit of the habdabs in minutes!

BooksPlease said...

Table Talk, me too!