When George Whitman, in 1951, established a bookstore he wanted it to be more than a literary sanctuary for book lovers. He turned it into a sanctuary for writers seeking inspiration.
The bookshop — as any devotee of books or, really, any of my listeners would have guessed — is the legendary Shakespeare & Company in the heart of Paris. Whitman welcomed all writers who needed a place to stay as his own personal guests at the bookstore — and to accommodate them, he had rooms and beds and made space available, entirely free. This philosophy is best summarised by a sign painted above an inner door that reads, “Be kind to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”.
In exchange for staying there for free, these indigent writers — Whitman called them tumbleweeds — were asked only to read one book every day, and help stack books and carry out other chores in the shop. Oh, and they had to write something autobiographical about themselves for Whitman’s archives. Today, Shakespeare & Company is said to have played host and refuge to an estimated 40,000 tumbleweeds since 1951.
One such tumbleweed that blew through Shakespeare & Company was my guest today, Jeremy Mercer — author of a delightful book, Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The book has another — and in my opinion better — title, Time Was Soft There.
Towards the end of 1999, Jeremy had to abandon his life — and his job as a crime reporter in Ottawa, Canada — following a death threat. You’ll find out why in this podcast. He sought refuge in Paris. Before long, Jeremy was broke and without a place to stay, ended up living in Shakespeare and Company, as another tumbleweed.
During his time there, Jeremy met a vibrant cast of characters — including George Whitman and fellow tumbleweeds — all of whom made the bookstore their home. Jeremy’s daily life became inseparable from the bookstore's activities, and its rich history and its literary heritage.
Again, most of my listeners would already know that Shakespeare & Company — first started by Sylvia Beach was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and other literary giants. In fact, Sylvia Beach first published James Joyce’s Ulysses, when no one else would. In Whitman’s time, Shakespeare & Company served as a base for many of the writers of the Beat Generation, such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs.
Jeremy’s book gives us a sense of the bohemian world of artists and writers in Paris as it celebrates the charm of independent bookstores. Above all, Jeremy brings us close to George Whitman, the legend.
ABOUT JEREMY MERCER
Jeremy Mercer is a Canadian writer and translator who lives in the Luberon in France. He has written four works of non-fiction that have been published in more than a dozen languages. After translating the English edition of L’Abolition by former French Minister of Justice Robert Badinter, he began specialising in art and photography translation. His writing has won or been nominated for numerous literary and journalism prizes. He also serves as president of AS Dauphin, his local football club.
Buy Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs here: https://amzn.to/3CwWC8C
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