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.