Saturday, 27 April 2013

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs

I was rather excited when I stumbled across this book whilst searching for titles to read for my French-themed, April. Paris and a secondhand bookshop, "That's going to be good!" I said to myself. Although I had heard about Shakespeare and Company, I have never visited the bookshop and, in fact, I have only been to Paris once, year ago on a school trip.

George Whitman, an American expat, started his English language bookshop in Paris in 1951. The original shop was called Le Mistral, but in 1964 George changed the name to Shakespeare and Company in honour of the famous store run by another American expat, Sylvia Beach, which had closed in 1941. In addition to selling books, George's bookshop had beds tucked between the bookshelves where writers and other literary folk could stay for free as long as they helped out in the shop and tried to adhere to George's rule of reading a book a day. He also provided food for his guests and visitors and a library which the residents could use.

Jeremy Mercer's memoir of his time at the bookshop (he arrived in January 2000), is part travel writing and part history of the shop and biography of its owner. After reading the first couple of chapters I didn't think I was going to like this book, but I decided to give it a chance and at least read a hundred pages. At first, I found it too sensationalist - the author (a former crime reporter) runs away to Paris after receiving a death threat from a shady acquaintance in his native Canada - the dialogue is stilted and cliched in places, particularly when he tries to give a voice to the English men he meets at Shakespeare and Company, for example, "Don't worry, old boy" and "Oh, hello, old boy. I don't know where my head is these days.", and I didn't particularly warm to some of the stories of the self-indulgent, student type characters resident at the bookshop. However, the book improves markedly at about the halfway mark and by the time I finished I decided that I actually liked this book a lot. By the end the author came across as sincere and unpretentious and the story of the bookshop and George Whitman's experiment of how to live a different, more equitable and humane, kind of life was really quite inspiring.
"There are few men I admire more than George. Though far from perfect and rife with idiosyncrasies  George, with all the hope and optimism of a child, still believes he can change the world and change the people he takes in at his store. In an age when it is so tempting to be cynical, this is enough to make him a hero in my eyes."
George Whitman died in December 2011 (you can read an obituary here); his bookshop continues under the ownership of his daughter who is called Sylvia Beach Whitman.

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