Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Revisiting Shakespeare & Co

I first discovered Jeremy Mercer's memoir,Time Was Soft There:A Paris Sojourn at
Shakespeare & Co,thru my e-mail. St Martin's has a reading sampler group called
Read-It-First! Club which sends you excepts from their latest releases on a
weekly basis hosted by Suzanne Beecher,who writes the daily intro(which are
worth reading on their own,even if you're not that keen on this week's book).

Mercer's book is not about the old school Sylvia Beach run Shakespeare & Co but
the current Parisan bookstore started up ten years after Sylvia had to shut her
doors(think of it as the Star Trek: The Next Generation version) and owned by
George Whitman,who did met with Sylvia Beach before her death and even named
his daughter after her.

Mercer wound up in Paris a few years ago when his crime reporting work in Canada
lead him into some rough times and a death threat. Shakespeare & Co is a haven
for writers,artists and drifters who are allowed to live at the store with George's
approval and the provision that everyone helps out at the store,from running the
register to clearing up at the end of the day(which is around midnight). The store's motto is"Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise" which
tends to attract quite a few characters to the place to give the store some atmosphere.

Mercer introduces you to some of them such as Kurt,the always-trying-to-sell-his
screenplay writer with an eye for the ladies,Nadia,one of the many talented and
beautiful women that flock to the shop and seem to have a spotlight effect on
the fellas and Simon,resident poet who dwells in the antiquarian room. Jeremy
bonds with him when one of his first assignments from George is to evict Simon.
Needless to say,Simon sticks around for awhile.

Besides learning what life is like at Shakespeare & Co(which was pretty run like
a commune),you get first hand lessons on how to live cheaply in Paris:where to
find places to shower,use the bathroom and the blackmarket jobs that can give
you a little cash. There's also plenty of tips on low cost eating such as Tuee,
the Sandwich Queen who will sell two large(but not quite fresh)sandwiches and a
drink for only twenty francs(when she raised the price to twenty four francs due
to the tourist crowd,there was some lamenting amongst the regulars).

Of all the people described in TWST,the most compelling is George,a man who's mercurial yet openhearted nature lead him to setting up one of the biggest
literary legacies in the world. Mercer was his confidante at times and his
take on George is better than any documentary film maker's for the clarity
and respect given the subject.

If you're interested in the original Shakespeare & Co,the best books to read are
Noel Riley Fitch's Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation and Sylvia Beach's own
memoir,Shakespeare and Company(hopefully it's still in print). You don't need to
read them before checking out this wonderful little book that gives you a taste
of bohemian Paris and booklore right at your fingertips.

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