Sunday, March 24, 2013

Time Was Soft There: A Review

Jeremy Mercer’s 2005 memoir Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. is a book that in many ways defies conventional classification. It is obviously a memoir – it says so right on the cover – and it is certainly a snapshot of the famous Paris bookshop at the start of the 21st century. But this entertaining and engaging book is far more than that.
The book chronicles the brief but eventful 9-month period that Canadian crime reporter Jeremy Mercer spent living at Shakespeare & Co., and in that sense it is a memoir. Mercer is a talented storyteller, and there were many points where the book seemed more like a novel than non-fiction. The only flaw in his delivery is a penchant for melodrama, particularly concerning the "death threat" that caused him to flee Canada for Paris in the first place. But the relationships, both good and bad, that he builds with the other staff and residents of the bookstore more than make up for this.
More than an autobiography though, Time Was Soft There is also both a history and a current view of the bookstore itself. The original Shakespeare & Co. was founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and was the home of the "Lost Generation" of American writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce until it was closed by the Nazis in 1941 during the occupation of France. In 1951, George Whitman opened an English-language bookstore in Paris; after seeking Beach's permission he later renamed his store Shakespeare & Co. as well.
It is George Whitman's life story that truly drives Time Was Soft There; it is in many ways more about Whitman than Mercer. Whitman (who lived at the store until his death in 2011 at the age of 98, though management of daily operations had passed to his daughter Sylvia just after the time this book chronicles) was an unabashed socialist, telling Mercer early on that "I run a socialist utopia that Masquerades as a bookstore." This worldview is the reason Whitman allowed artists, writers, poets, and wayward travelers to live for short periods at the store and share in communal meals for more than 6 decades, with the only requirement being working around the store.
But despite his declarations of Marxist thought, Whitman was a bookman to the core. The lengths to which he goes to keep his beloved bookstore afloat are a testament to his love of books. He was single-minded in a way that few are these days, and the book faithfully shows both the good and bad side of the vagabond-yet-stationary life of both Whitman and his employee/guests. He summed up his philosophy about books and book selling this way: “The book business is the business of life."
Jeremy Mercer has given us what is the final extended look at both George Whitman and Shakespeare & Co. during Whitman's lifetime. In its own small way, Time Was Soft There is a link in a chain extending back to Sylvia Beach's memoir Shakespeare & Co. and Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. For lovers of books and bookstores, it is a must-read.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Indie Bookstores Rise from the Ashes

For years now the media has covered stories about the closing of independent bookstores with an unexplainable glee. Yesterday a story in The Christian Science Monitor went the opposite direction, devoting their feature story to the fact that independent bookstores are actually on the upswing, with more opening every year and 2012 having been a banner year for sales.

The Monitor's story, aptly titled "The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores," summed up the current climate for indie booksellers this way:

Community support is by no means unique to Bank Square Books (in Mystic, Connecticut), and it may be the secret ingredient behind a quiet resurgence of independent bookstores, which were supposed to go the way of the stone tablet – done in first by the national chains, then Amazon, and then e-books.

A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.

While beloved bookstores still close down every year, sales at independent bookstores overall are rising, established independents are expanding, and new ones are popping up from Brooklyn to Big Stone Gap, Va. Bookstore owners credit the modest increases to everything from the shuttering of Borders to the rise of the "buy local" movement.

There is graphic evidence from the American Bookseller's Association to back up these claims:

After a steady decline in the number of independent bookstores during the rapid expansion of Barnes and Noble and Borders, we have gained more than we've lost in the past four years (a net gain of 166 stores and 249 additional locations). And 2013 looks just as bright, in spite of the sluggish economy, with stores like Farewell Books in Austin, TX and Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI (to name just two) opening this spring.

More stores will follow as book lovers with an entrepreneurial spirit see the gaping hole the loss of bookstores has left in our communities, and as people in those communities recognize that there are some things that mean more to the soul of a place than saving a few dollars on Amazon. As I've said for years, the book isn't dead...and neither are bookstores.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Ideal Bookshelf

A few days ago I discovered a new book at the library called My Ideal Bookshelf. The editor, Thessaly La Force, interviewed 100 leading cultural figures (writers, artists, musicians, actors, chefs, and fashion designers among them) and asked them to share their ideal bookshelf. "Ideal" was defined as "books that define their dreams and ambitions and in many ways helped them find their way in the world."

It is an intriguing premise, both as a window into a large group of very successful people and as a challenge to each of us to look hard at what we would place on our own ideal bookshelf. We all have long-time favorites that have influenced us throughout our lives and shaped how we see the world. We also have books that we discover at a point of specific need we may not have even recognized (when the reader is ready, the book will appear, to paraphrase the Zen saying). All of them impact who we are.

My Ideal Bookshelf is a compelling combination of words and art, and it explores what books mean to the people included in the volume using both. Each contributor was interviewed about the books they chose for their ideal shelf, and we learn what the books meant to them. This would have been interesting enough, but the editor took it a step further. She brought in artist Jane Mount to illustrate each person's bookshelf, exactly as they set it up for the interview.

The result of these illustrations is both a presentation of the book-as-object and a further glimpse into the person who chose them. Some arranged their books alphabetically, as you would in a store or library, while some had them stacked haphazardly in a pile. Some had very few volumes, while others packed almost more than the artist could fit on the page. And some, particularly the artists, had them arranged in a way that made the sizes of the books or the colors of the spines most pleasing to the eye.

As for the actual books chosen, they were as varied as the people interviewed. There was a consistent representation of authors like Hemingway, Nabokov, and Garcia Marquez, as you would expect. But there were a huge number of titles I had never even heard of, and I consider myself fairly well-read. That's the other joy of this book; it can lead you to books you never knew you wanted to read.

I encourage all book lovers to pick up My Ideal Bookshelf, and check out the books chosen by people like Jennifer Egan, David Sedaris, James Patterson, Tony Hawk, Michael Chabon, and 95 others. And while you're at it, why not take a little time and ask yourself what books you would put on your ideal bookshelf, the ones that say the most about you and who you are. It's self-examination of the best kind.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Razor's Edge: A Review

There are innumerable books that have been labeled "classics" over the years. Sadly, the very point at which a book receives this designation seems to be the point at which people stop reading it. In the case of the great English novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham, this "classic" label has long been applied to his book Of Human Bondage. Fortunately this is not as much the case with his best novel, The Razor's Edge, so we are all free to continue reading it.

The Razor's Edge is not simply Maugham's finest novel, however; it is easily one of the best novels of all time. I freely admit that I am an evangelist for this particular book, having read it every year since 1985. When I'm finished I give that copy to someone who has never read it and buy myself a new copy. Some have seen the 1946 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power, which was fairly true to the book, and almost 40 years later Bill Murray attempted an ill-conceived film version that was, in a word, awful. Neither film comes close to the greatness of the novel.

The Razor's Edge tells the story of Larry Darrell, a World War I flying ace who returns to his native Chicago profoundly impacted by the events of the war and unwilling to join in his friends' pursuit of money and leisure in booming 1920s America. Rather than enter the business world (as everyone expects him to do), he leaves his home and his fiancé Isabel and travels to Europe to, in his words, "loaf."

Loafing as Larry practices it is quite strenuous however, consisting of days working on a farm or in a coal mine and nights reading the great philosophers and mystics. He eventually travels to India and comes under the teaching of a guru who helps him greatly in his search for meaning. As these events transpire, back home Isabel has married Larry's best friend, the stock market has crashed, and the friends are ultimately reunited at the Paris home of Isabel's uncle Elliott Templeton.

One unique feature of this book is that Maugham inserts himself in the story as its narrator, giving the novel the feel of a memoir; indeed, after the publication of the book in 1944 there was no small amount of speculation as to the identity of the person Larry is based upon. While putting himself in the story is an unusual plot device, it allows for what are some of the best scenes of all: the interplay between Maugham's character and Elliott Templeton. And while Larry is certainly the main character, Elliott steals every scene he's in (this happened in both film versions as well).

Although not as well known today as some of Maugham's other novels (including The Painted Veil and Up At the Villa, both of which have been made into films in the past decade), The Razor's Edge was a huge bestseller upon release, selling over a million copies in the 1940s; it has never been out of print since. It is as relevant today as when it was written nearly 70 years ago, and contains some unmistakable and prophetic parallels to our society today, from the dangers of a consumer society to the effects of war on those who fight it to the search for meaning through Eastern religions. It is also the only book I've ever read that makes the search for meaning both interesting and entertaining, which may be the most amazing thing of all.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Real Books Aren't Going Anywhere

As most booksellers expected, recent sales trends show that the e-reader/e-book phenomenon is losing the huge momentum it first enjoyed, and the percentage of e-books sold vs. printed books is reaching a point of equilibrium. I personally never believed that printed books were in danger of going the way of the dodo, for the following reasons.

1. Printed books provide a tactile experience. Music is heard, and films are both seen and heard, but books are experienced both visually and by touch. There is an aspect to the feel of books (the smooth glossy cover, the roughness and even smell of the paper) that provides a physical sensation that is both separate from and intimately linked to the story you are reading. We bond not only with the author (novels being the only art form that requires many hours of commitment on the part of the audience) but with the book itself.

2. Great novels, from War and Peace to The Shadow of the Wind were not meant to be read on a digital screen, no matter how much “like paper” they try to make that screen. Most of us spend our entire workday staring at a computer screen, plus additional hours in front of a computer or television after we get home. The last thing most readers want to do is spend even more time staring at a screen.

3. Books can be written in, dog-eared, loaned to friends, stuffed in your back pocket, browsed for on rainy afternoons, and then sold to a used bookshop for cash to buy yet more books. Try that with a Kindle.

4. Most readers (and we have always been remarkably few as percentage of the total population) like having a personal library. It may or may not contain highly collectible items like a signed Hemingway or first-edition Faulkner, but a bookcase loaded with books can be much more than a simple collection. It can serve as a timeline of our lives: the copy of Homer you read in the same college class as your future wife, that Robert Parker Spenser novel you read in the hospital waiting for your son to be born, that copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets you read to your daughters over a snowy weekend, and that biography of Maugham you discovered in a cool little shop in London. These are books you pass down through generations, even though they may have value only within the context of your own family. Once again, you can’t do that with an e-reader. The books in a Kindle don’t even exist except as bits of binary code.

5. Finally, we need only look to our own history to see that printed books will always find a way to survive. Books have weathered far greater threats than the Kindle for over 100 years. The book's demise was first predicted with the advent of radio, then with the arrival of motion pictures, television, video games, and finally the Internet and the iPad age. It was even thought that the launch of Penguin Publishing's paperback book line in 1935 would quickly spell the end of hardcover books; 78 years later hardcovers are still around.

So even if you have a Kindle, or a Kobo, or an iPad, go out and buy some printed books from your local independent bookseller too. They hold your memories much better than any gadget can.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Most (and Least) Literate US Cities

A few weeks ago Central Connecticut State University released its annual survey of the most literate cities in the United States. The study ranked the cities based on six areas of literacy: size of library systems, presence of bookstores, educational attainment, digital readership, circulation of newspapers, and other publications. Only cities with a population of 250,000 or more were included, and in the bookstore category those listed as either "religious" or "adult" were excluded.

The top-ranked cities came as no real surprise; here are the Top Ten:

1. Washington, DC
2. Seattle, WA
3. Minneapolis, MN
4. Pittsburgh, PA
5. Denver, CO
6. St. Paul, MN
7. Boston, MA
8. Atlanta, GA
9. St. Louis, MO
10. Portland, OR

The lowest ranked cities did surprise me, for one glaring reason::

67. Long Beach, CA
68. Mesa, AZ
69. Aurora, CO
70. Fresno, CA
71. San Antonio, TX
72. Anaheim, CA
73. El Paso, TX
74. Stockton, CA
75. Corpus Christi, TX
76. Bakersfield, CA

Of the 10 least-literate cities in America, 8 were in either California or Texas. Being a Texan (and obviously one concerned with books, reading, literacy, etc) this concerned me. So I looked at where cities in my area ranked. (Note: Austin came in at a fairly respectable #23, but is not close enough to be considered local).

45. Plano
47. Dallas
52. Fort Worth
64. Arlington

So of the two cities closest to me (and the most likely locations for the brick-and-mortar incarnation of Somerset Books), Fort Worth couldn't crack the Top 50, and Arlington only missed the Bottom 10 by three spots.

Some would look at these numbers and tell me that if I want to open a bookstore, then get the hell out of Texas (and stay out of California), and that is certainly a point to ponder. Yet there is obviously a great need for independent bookstores in my area, and someone needs to meet that need. So the the optimist in me looks at these numbers and thinks that maybe I'm right where I'm supposed to be.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to Identify a Book Club Edition

Nothing is more disheartening for a book collector than discovering a perfect copy of a coveted volume only to find that it is a book club edition. Even worse, many novice collectors have paid exorbitant prices for book club editions that were sold by unscrupulous dealers as "first editions." With very few exceptions, like a Hemingway signature on the title page, book club editions are virtually worthless; even with such a signature the value is only a fraction of what a true first edition would be worth.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to recognize a book club edition if you know what to look for. Even though the dust jacket and print layout are the same, in most cases there are multiple identifying marks and characteristics that distinguish a true first edition from a book club edition.

One of the easiest ways to recognize a book club edition is by its size. Book club books are typically noticeably smaller than the original first edition. While nowhere near as small as a paperback book, the difference in size is obvious even when there is not a non-book club edition with which to compare.

The dust jacket can also help with identification, the most obvious clue being "Book Club Edition" printed at the bottom of the inside front cover of the dust jacket; this clear mark is most common in book club editions issued before the 1990s. Another telling sign is that book club editions do not have the retail price at the top of the inside front cover of the dust jacket. Recently, at least one British publisher stopped printing the retail price on the dust jacket of first editions, but this is far from the norm even in the U.K., and not done by American publishers.

One note of warning regarding dust jackets. Closely examine so-called "price-clipped" books (where the upper inside corner of the dust jacket has been cut out). In some cases there was never a price there in the first place, and the seller is using this tactic to make it harder to identify the volume as a book club edition.

If any doubt remains after checking the size and the dust jacket, the "blind stamp" can erase all doubt. A blind stamp is a mark on the back cover, and can range from a round indentation in the cover to a small yellow or white dot at the bottom of the back cover near the spine. If any such mark is present, the book is definitely a book club edition.

Taking all of these things into consideration will keep the book collector from ending up with a book club edition of a sought-after volume. As a reading copy there is nothing wrong with them, but as a collectible they aren't worth the paper they are printed on.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Haunted Bookshop Series

For those who like a good mystery series the list of choices can be daunting. Several publishers (particularly Berkeley Prime Crime) release new installments each year in a plethora of mystery genres, from hard-boiled to cozy. One of the best of the last few years is the Haunted Bookshop series by author Alice Kimberly.

The first book in the Haunted Bookshop series, The Ghost and Mrs. McClure, presents both an interesting premise and a different twist on the mystery genre. Penelope Thornton-McClure is a young widow who owns a mystery bookshop in a small town in Rhode Island; she's the "cozy" side of the story (think Miss Marple). The shop is also inhabited by the ghost of Jack Shepard, a private investigator murdered in the store 50 years earlier; he's the "hard-boiled" side of the story (think Sam Spade). I've never seen the two mixed before, and the effect is surprisingly satisfying.

Thus far there are five titles in the series: The Ghost and Mrs. McClure, The Ghost and the Dead Deb, The Ghost and the Dead Man's Library, The Ghost and the Femme Fatale, and The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion. The most recent, The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion may be the best one to date, and is evidence that the series is not becoming too predictable or formulaic. Too many of these "specialized" mysteries go flat after a few years; this one has not.

The plot lines in the Haunted Bookshop series are all solid, and the violence is realistic, limited, and understated, which is a nice change from some of the gore-filled tomes put out today. But the novels are first and foremost character-driven. The best parts are the ones that feature interaction between Penelope and Jack, especially as they seek to overcome the "language barrier" between Penelope's 21st century vocabulary and Jack's 1940's street-wise slang and deal with the whole "I'm dead and you're not" obstacle to what might otherwise be a budding romance.

Each of the novels is a fast read, making them perfect for either end-of-winter-by-the-fireplace reading or  stormy-spring-afternoon reading, depending on what's happening in your part of the country right now. You also get a peek inside the world of the bookseller (though not to the degree found in John Dunning's Bookman series) that is interesting in itself.

One last point about this series. Alice Kimberly is the pen name of Cleo Coyle, author of the very successful Coffeehouse Mysteries series. And Cleo Coyle is actually the pen name of the husband and wife team of Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini. You can find more info about both series' at their website.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Heart-Shaped Box: A Review

I'll be the first to admit that I'm typically not a big fan of the horror genre. This may be the result of having read The Shining as a twelve-year-old...I think the damn thing both scared and scarred me. Which is why it's ironic that Stephen King's son (who writes under the name Joe Hill) is the one who made horror enjoyable for me again. Not long after starting this blog I reviewed Hill's second novel, Horns. Given that (and since his newest novel, NOS4A2, will be out in May), I think it's time to take a look at his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, as well.

Long before anyone knew he was the son of horror legend Stephen King, Joe Hill's outstanding debut novel Heart-Shaped Box made it clear that a major new voice had arrived on the literary scene. And not just the horror scene. As the San Francisco Chronicle said in their review, it is a "story likely to be enjoyed by horror enthusiasts and mainstream readers alike."

The premise is simple: an aging heavy metal icon named Judas Coyne has a macabre collection, including a peasant's skull, a witch's confession written 300 years earlier, and a snuff film. When he sees an online auction offering the ghost of a woman's stepfather, he doesn't hesitate to add it to his collection. She sends him the dead man's favorite suit in a black heart-shaped box, and that's when his troubles begin. Because he didn't just buy an empty suit, or even some anonymous ghost; this is much more personal.

What ensues is, for Jude, a road trip where he switches back and forth from hunter to hunted so fast it's sometimes hard to keep up with who's chasing who. The tension builds, gives you just enough time to take a short breath, then builds some more. And Hill understands very well what Hitchcock meant when he said there is no terror in the "bang," only in the anticipation of it.

Like his father, Joe Hill is firmly planted in the horror genre. But Hill diverges from most horror writers in that he creates truly literary novels at the same time. His plotting is tight, and his characters, both hero and villain, are fully formed. In fact, what makes them so real is that none are completely hero or completely villain, just like in life. You find yourself caring about the characters because they are not cardboard cutouts of people; they're us, even with ghosts hot on their heels (in Heart-Shaped Box) or horns growing out of their heads (in Horns).

Make no mistake: Heart-Shaped Box will scare the hell out of you. But in the process of being scared you'll also see a remarkable transformation in Jude that I certainly never saw coming at the start of the book. Too often in novels today we see no development in the characters, regardless of genre. That is not the case here. It is an amazing debut novel, and as Horns has shown, it was no one-hit wonder.

So pick up a copy of Heart-Shaped Box and settle in for a great read. Just be sure to lock the doors first. And you'll probably want to leave all the lights on too.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The 2013 Texas Storytelling Festival Starts March 7

Ever since the advent of television effectively killed the radio drama, oral storytelling has been in a fight for survival. Now that we have the Internet, iPads, YouTube, and any number of other visual media at our fingertips, some may think that storytelling is completely dead. Well, there are some folks that beg to differ. And while this may seem like an odd post for a blog about books, people who love books love stories, so I think it fits.

Starting March 7th and running through the 10th, the Tejas Storytelling Association will host the 28th Annual Texas Storytelling Festival. This year's festival will be held in Denton, just north of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and will feature storytellers from across the country, including Andy Offutt Irwin, DeCee Cornish, and (back by popular demand) Willy Claflin and his sidekick Maynard Moose.

The Tejas Storytelling Association was started in 1985 with the mission of perpetuating the art of storytelling. TSA promotes all facets of storytelling and hopes to expand the understanding and experiences of storytelling by nurturing storytellers and listeners and recruiting new audiences. They named the new organization Tejas to express founding member Finley Stewart's grand vision of creating an organization that would bring together listeners and tellers from throughout the Texas region (Tejas is the Caddo Indian word for "friend," from which Texas derives its name).

Some of the highlights of this year's event include:

GHOST TALES: Thursday night means ghost stories. Tales begin at 6:30 pm with frights appropriate for the younger set: the really scary stuff for adults begins at 7:30 pm, with haunting legends and eerie tales of the unexplained and unexplainable.

TALESPINNER DINNER AND SILENT AUCTION: From 5:00 to 7:00 pm on Saturday, March 9th you can join the featured storytellers for dinner before the evening concert. There will be great food, plus a chance to place bids on a number of goods and services at the festival's silent auction. All funds raised will go to support activities of the festival.

LABYRINTH WALK and SACRED TALES CONCERT: On Sunday, Jay Stailey will lead a Labyrinth Walk, a kind of moving meditation that opens you to think about your own life journey. The Sacred Tales Concert will offer stories from diverse spiritual traditions.

WORKSHOPS: There are storytelling workshops each day of the festival, ranging from an introduction to storytelling to how to share scary stories to how to use storytelling as a tool in the classroom.

The festival will be held at the Denton Civic Center. Visit the Festival’s website for ticket prices, hotel accommodations, and a full schedule of events.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Online Store Is Up and Running

As promised, our online store on is now up and running. You can access our catalogue using the search box on the right side of the page (below the "Upcoming Events" section). There are only a few books listed thus far, but more will be added every day.

Please note that leaving all search fields in the box blank, checking  "search only our books," and clicking "Search" will bring up our entire inventory. (I'm sure I made that sound much more complicated than it actually is.) If we don't have what you're looking for right now, you can also search all of Biblio and support other independent booksellers by unchecking the "search only our books" box and entering the title or author you're looking for.

Buy local and help us move closer to the brick and mortar store that will be a gathering place for the community.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Reading is Cool: Photographic Evidence

Far too often I hear people (of all ages) lament that reading is boring; this usually translates into "I've only ever read what I was forced to school." At that point I will typically recommend a book that I think would grab that particular person's attention, which works often enough to at least open them up to the idea of reading on a regular basis. Once you read a really great book, one that you simply can't put down,  the search for more really great books will keep you busy for a lifetime.

Then there are those who say reading simply isn't cool. For those folks I offer the following photographic evidence to the contrary. You may think you're cool, but there's no way you're close to as cool as these people. And they're all reading.

Paul Newman

Frank Sinatra

Darth Vader (reading "Harry Potter")

Johnny Depp

Keith Richards

Ben Affleck

Bob Marley

Grace Kelly

Jennifer Lawrence

James Dean

Stephen King


And no list of cool readers would ever be complete without:


Friday, March 1, 2013

Shakespeare and Company: A Review

Sylvia Beach in front of Shakespeare and Company

It seems only appropriate (given my goal of opening a bookstore) that I review the book written by the woman who should be canonized as the Patron Saint of Booksellers. Just under ninety-five years ago, American Sylvia Beach opened the now-famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, and her memoir of the same name chronicles the roughly 25 years that her shop was the center of the literary world.

Before delving into the particulars of this wonderful book, it is probably best to clear up any confusion over the store itself. In an earlier post I reviewed Time was Soft There, a memoir by Jeremy Mercer about his time at Shakespeare and Company. However, the store Mercer writes about is not the store Sylvia Beach founded, but one that another expatriate American named George Whitman opened in 1951 and renamed Shakespeare and Company after Ms. Beach’s death. In what was either a double homage or a case of grand larceny (depending on your viewpoint), Whitman not only took the name of Sylvia Beach’s bookstore for his shop, he also took her name as well: his only daughter is named Sylvia Beach Whitman, and she now runs his Shakespeare and Company.

The original Sylvia Beach started Shakespeare and Company in 1919 with $3,000 borrowed from her mother. As is the case with independent booksellers to this day, it was never a lucrative enterprise but rather a labor of love. She began the store as a lending library for those looking for books in English, charging a small monthly membership fee; this practice was quite common in the early part of the last century, but has essentially vanished today. As time went on she began selling more books than she loaned, but the shop’s fortunes remained tenuous for its entire existence.

What makes Shakespeare and Company (the memoir) so appealing is the melding of Beach’s light, anecdotal writing style with the monumental people about whom she writes. This is more than a book about a bookstore; it is a chronicle of the writers, artists, publishers, and others who essentially made the shop their second home throughout the 1920s and 1930s. And while anyone writing a memoir likes to drop a name or two, the names in Shakespeare and Company stand out a bit.

One of Sylvia Beach’s best customers was a young, unknown (when she met him) writer named Ernest Hemingway. He was covering sports for a Canadian newspaper at the time, and it was to Sylvia Beach and her longtime partner Adrienne Monnier that Hemingway read his first short story. Hemingway and his wife Hadley later introduced Beach and Monnier to the grand sport of boxing. She knew all of the so-called "Lost Generation" writers, and her memoir contains stories about Hemingway, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, Robert McAlmon, Thornton Wilder, Andre Gide, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. It was Sylvia Beach who took F. Scott Fitzgerald to meet James Joyce when Fitzgerald was too nervous to go alone.

Her relationship with James Joyce and his family takes up a good part of the book, and with good reason. By her own admission, Sylvia Beach worshiped James Joyce. Her shop became an office of sorts for him; he met with other writers there, received his mail there (as did many other writers who had no stable address), and read through the inventory of the bookstore. But Sylvia Beach’s greatest contribution to both Joyce and literature was offering to publish his novel Ulysses when it had been rejected as obscene by his publishers in England and America. The trials of publishing and distributing Ulysses are interesting not only as history but as a cautionary tale against censorship even today.

Because she felt that authors deserved to be paid more for their work than the people who published them, she took no royalties from her publication of Ulysses, and nearly sent herself and the bookstore into bankruptcy covering the costs and expenses. It was only the intervention of several writer friends that saved her from having to close her doors permanently, but she seemed not to be concerned about what happened to her as long as Joyce’s novel made it to the readers who clamored for it.

Shakespeare and Company is a quick read, although you may have to look around a bit to find it. I was determined not to buy it online, but rather from a real local bookstore, and it took me about a week to track down a copy. It is a glimpse into an amazing time in the history of American literature, a wonderful chronicle of a bygone era, and a fine portrait of the woman to whom Hemingway gave his highest praise:

"No one," he wrote in A Moveable Feast, "was ever nicer to me."

And the Loser Is...

In honor of Fifty Shades of Grey winning our poll as the worst-written best-seller (beating out Twilight and The DaVinci Code)...

Have a great weekend everyone.