“If you ever come to Paris
On a cold and rainy night
And find the Shakespeare store
It can be a welcome sight
Because it has a motto
Something friendly and wise
Be kind to strangers
Lest they’re angels in disguise”
Shakespeare & Co in Paris is one of the world’s most famous bookstores. The original store opened in 1919 and became known as the haunt of such literary heavyweights as Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The shop was forced to lose in 1941 – allegedly after owner Sylvia Beach refused to sell the last copy of “Finnegan’s Wake” to an occupying Nazi officer.
A decade later another bookstore with a similar free thinking ethos opened on the Left Bank and 1964, with the agreement of Sylvia Beach, its owner George Whitman resurrected the name “Shakespeare & Co.”
The shop was the principal meeting place for a new generation of writers, and would become renowned for its run ins with the authorities, its cluttered but captivating interior and its open door policy to visitors – even providing beds for those of a literary mindset who found themselves down on their luck.
That tradition continues still and Canadian Jeremy Mercer was one of those who found shelter in the bookstore. He had a career as a crime reporter but, when information from a criminal source that he had promised to hold back was published, he thought it wise to flee. He went to Paris with a vague idea of studying French to complete an unfinished college course.
Jeremy Mercer reveals a world inside the bookstore that seems utterly unbelievable at times. Residents are required to write an essay for admission, evict the previous occupant of their space, read a book a day and help out
Misadventures and anecdotes abound. The most interesting concern owner George Whitman, a man who regards money with disdain, sets fire to his hair in order to give it a trim, and dreams of his estranged daughter taking over his empire. He accommodates an ever-changing group of residents, who rise and fall in his favour.
The story in a reporter’s style and while the book is readable it also has some serious flaws. Jeremy Mercer as a central character is not that engaging and some of the stories are tied up a little too tidily, to the point where I had to seriously consider whether they had been somewhat embroidered.
This isn’t a bad book – I’m glad I read it – but Shakespeare & Co is worthy of better. Maybe there’s another book out there …..