Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co., by Jeremy Mercer

For any visitor to Paris of a bookish inclination, a visit to Shakespeare And Company to purchase at least one book is an absolute must. My proud possession is my much-loved copy of the hilarious poetry anthology The Stuffed Owl with the bookshop’s famous stamp. Located in the Rue de la Bûcherie, with an unrivalled view of Notre Dame, the ramshackle bookshop is more than that – it is also a haven for penniless writers, and a free library for penniless readers.

There have been two bookshops of this name in Paris. The first was founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, and among many others its claim to fame is that it first published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. It closed in 1941 after the occupation of Paris, and despite encouragement by literary stars such as Hemingway, Sylvia Beach did not reopen it after the war.

In 1951 an ex-patriate American, George Whitman, opened his own bookshop called Le Mistral. Sylvia Beach gave her blessing to it taking on the name Shakespeare & Co, which it did after her death and on Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary in 1964. Whitman, son of A (but not The) Walt Whitman, mischievously never corrected people’s assumptions about his family connections, and ran the bookshop in his own eccentric way until his death at the age of 2011 at the age of 98. Since 2003 his daughter Sylvia (named for Sylvia Beach) has been engaged with the bookshop and now owns and runs it.

Famously, the bookshop has beds tucked in the corners of its rambling corridors and rooms (including one in the antiquarian section), and offers a free home to anyone who will help in the shop, read one book a day, and write a short life story for the shop’s archive. Tens of thousands of people have stayed there, for periods of a day or two, to months or even years. The living conditions are basic, and the life unique. Jeremy Mercer has written an engaging account of being a ‘graduate’ of Shakespeare & Co.

Jeremy Mercer is a Canadian writer and journalist. He started his career as a crime writer in his home town, and describes having to leave in a hurry, having got on the wrong side of a local man with a very unsavoury character. He ends up in Paris with his proverbial wits and a handful of dollars. Finding a free bed in Shakespeare & Co. enables him to get back on his feet, and sets the direction for the rest of his life.

His memoir is as shaped and crafted as a novel, and in an author’s note he states that the extraordinary events and characters encountered in a matter of months have been ‘distilled and condensed and then distilled again.’ What must have been an ever changing procession of bookshop guests has been formed into a cast of characters, the leading actor being George Whitman himself. He is the classic case of someone whose innocence and eccentricity makes him the target for cheats and thieves, but who sails through the dangers, wads of cash hidden in bookshelves (and in one case made into an incredibly expensive nest by a family of mice), cash register drawer open, books everywhere to be taken away in exchange for payment, or not. Having a beholden group of young writerly types looking out for him was an ingenious way of containing these threats – Whitman and his guests formed a unique community: ‘A socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop’. As a visitor and customer, I rather responded to Henry Miller’s description ‘A wonderland of books’. Indeed it is – a rambling building of rooms and corridors piled floor to ceiling with books, crammed with readers and purchasers (not necessarily the same).

Jeremy Mercer describes in a workmanlike, journalistic style life in the bookshop with minimal facilities, dubious hygiene and fitful hospitality. He tells us how (and how infrequently) the guests managed to find a decent place to wash and shave, and where the best places were to find free or very cheap food. He tells us about the work of the bookshop, doled out by Whitman with wild inconsistency, favourites among the guests rising to positions of trust and falling again. There are events and readings – some given by the guests of the work they have managed to write while there. Publishing dreams are developed and either succeed or evaporate. Escape from the lack of privacy is easy – just a few steps take the author and his friends to the bank of the Seine and shelter under a bridge with a bottle of wine. At the heart of it all is the mercurial presence of George Whitman, his seemingly chaotic rule of his empire masking a steely grip on its survival, inspiring affection and resentment in equal measure, but always gratitude.

Strangely, although I’ve visited the bookshop only once, some of my strongest memories of it are not here. Mercer is, I deduce, much more interested in the bookshop’s inhabitants than their surroundings. The cover of the book has one promise that it doesn’t fulfil – there is the image of Kitty, the black cat (not always the same one, naturally). When I visited, the latest Kitty was sprawled across a table, preventing readers from even considering for purchase the latest Zadie Smith. I deduce that the author is not a cat person, because he doesn’t even speculate why the mice were allowed to run riot while Kitty was in charge. He mentions the ‘Angels in disguise’ motto in one of the rooms, but it is not the only one, and one of the charms of the bookshop is to look up and down and see what is written on the walls and floors. The title is also a bit of a misfire, I feel – chosen possibly for alliteration above all. The bedbugs scarcely feature, I am happy to say.

The author has, as he tells us, shaped this memoir – it is his Shakespeare & Co., and his personality and the debt that he owes to the place shine through. It is a very readable account of a unique place that is a magnet for all booklovers, and of the genius who made it what it is.

Jeremy Mercer: Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs. London: Phoenix, 2005. 260p
ISBN 9780753820582
First published in the US as Time Was Soft There by St Martin’s Press, 2005.

Photographs of Shakespeare & Co. are Hilary’s holiday snaps from 2007.

3 comments on “Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co., by Jeremy Mercer

  1. Dena@shaldenandneatham
    May 27, 2017

    It will be interesting to read it–this era of the bookstore famous for its “tumbleweeds” young people would apply/work there for the summer. Would have like to attempted it but life/information was difficult back in pre-internet days. Actually I read Sylvia Beach’s autobiography last year, and I found it wonderfully insightful about Hemingway and Fitzgerald–it was in a large dump of book from my town’s public library–one of many books I rescued last May 2016.

  2. Kate
    May 27, 2017

    To be honest, I think the present-day Shakespeare & Company is a bit of a con. I first went there as a pilgrim in the early 1990s, in awe of its literary history, and went away quite happy. I returned some years ago and thought how mainstream it looked. I roamed its shelves for an hour (timed) looking for a book I wanted to read, and was startled by how much duplication of stock there was, and how little genuinely interesting new or second-hand fiction it has. There is a great deal of propping up its Left Bank reputation, so it did feel like wandering around a museum piece sustained by actors. Next door the company has opened (or suffered to be open) an expensive antiquarian bookshop which is where its other income stream may come from. This is just one opinion of course, but I am not inclined to go back.

  3. Caroline
    May 28, 2017

    Perhaps a victim of its own success. I tumbled on it last year and put off by day time queues came back late evening and was entranced by the books, people, delightfully ramshackle rooms, Hafez poem on the stairs and ended up singing til the wee hours round a battered piano with other passing musicians. Magical. I’m going back next month.
    Lovely review! And I’m looking forward to reading of Mercers much more immersive experience.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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