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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Books About Bookstores

There are those who love books, and then there are those who love books and bookstores. Here are three books that every bookstore lover will want on their shelf:

1. Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company by Jeremy Mercer.

The title of Jeremy Mercer's book comes from a line in his book, Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company. He writes "hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter.... time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I'd ever felt." This account of his time living at the Paris landmark is as much about the characters that reside at the famous bookstore as the books themselves, but books are ever-present in his narrative.

Mercer was a crime reporter in Canada who felt forced to flee to France following a threat on his life in late 1999. As he runs out of money and faces the prospect of living on the streets of Paris, he is invited to live at Shakespeare and Company by the owner, George Whitman, an expatriate American who has run the store since the 1950's and who claims to "run a socialist utopia that masquerades as a bookstore."

Whitman was not, as he claimed early in his life, the son of the poet Walt Whitman, and his bookshop is not the same as Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company, the store that published Ulysses and closed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Rather, this store is the sister store to the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and Whitman was a longtime friend of its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Though Mercer is the narrator, and we learn much about his life before and during his time at Shakespeare and Company, Whitman is the central character of this book. We learn of his struggles to keep the store from falling into the hands of real estate developers, his unique ways of keeping the residents of the store fed, and his fascinating life story. Most importantly, we learn of his lifelong commitment to the idea that books are important, that they matter to us both as individuals and as a society.

2. Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins

This memoir tells the story of Collins' time living in a book lovers dream: the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. With only 1500 residents and 40 bookstores, it is truly a bibliophile's nirvana, especially if you love old books. Collins and his wife relocated there from San Francisco with their young son in the hope of finding a more idyllic life, and their attempts to purchase a house in the town, while having nothing to do with books, is as hilarious for us as it was frustrating for them.

The centerpiece of the town, and the place book lovers will most want to visit someday, is Hay Castle, a centuries-old castle now converted into a rambling bookstore and owned by Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed king of Hay-on-Wye. After meeting Booth, Collins spent a brief period attempting, with limited success, to organize the American Literature section at the castle. The remainder of Collins' time is divided between revising his first book, wandering through the town's myriad of second-hand bookshops, and trying to navigate English real estate laws that would drive most Americans mad.

Sixpence House is an entertaining read that will have book lovers planning their next vacation around the annual Hay Festival, hoping to find a rare gem of a book in the mountainous stacks of Hay Castle. But make your reservations early; the event that former President Bill Clinton called "the Woodstock of the Mind" is Britain's little secret no longer, thanks in part to Sixpence House.

3. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

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