Magazine article Newsweek International

Living a Literary Life; Recalling a Paris Bookstore-And Its Eccentric Founder

Magazine article Newsweek International

Living a Literary Life; Recalling a Paris Bookstore-And Its Eccentric Founder

Article excerpt

Byline: Benjamin Sutherland

There were many signs that Jeremy Mercer, a rookie crime reporter at the Ottawa Citizen, was heading down a dangerous road. In his memoir, "Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co." (260 pages. St. Martin's Press ), blood-spattered crime scenes, at first sickening to him, have become intriguing. He argues that begging mothers for pictures of their murdered children is a public service to readers. He binges on alcohol and drugs. His girlfriend leaves. But the final sign arrives in the form of a phone call from a source--a well-connected ex-con "accustomed to violence"--furious with Mercer for publishing his name. He shouts about a baseball bat and knees. Mercer flees to Paris.

His exile starts out rough. He can touch all four walls of his room without moving. Punks burn his hair on a bus. The frustrating boredom of aimlessness sets in. His money dwindles. Then one lonely afternoon, a cloudburst turns Mercer's luck. To keep dry, he ducks into a dilapidated shop. It turns out to be Shakespeare and Company, a charming, labyrinthine bookstore-commune with free, bedbug-ridden cots for literary-minded foreigners, lorded over by an American expat named George Whitman who is pushing 90. Mercer promptly moves in. His memoir reads like a fast-paced novel, driven by the tragicomic adventures of the shop's struggling inhabitants: a poet, a screenwriter, a military deserter, a translator of restaurant menus, a novelist, a sculptor, a hippie, a teacher of Chinese, a copywriter and the daughter Whitman fathered at the age of 69. …

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