First things first: I added an Oxford comma to the title of this book in the subject line, and I’m going to be doing the same throughout. That’s just how I roll.
Secondly – I’ve found that any exercise which makes one turn to unread books on one’s shelves, whether that be the TBR Double Dare, A Century of Books, or Reading Presently, brings up all sorts of unexpected joys. That’s hardly a surprise, perhaps, but it does give me pause for thought – how many wonderful books are waiting for me in my own room? I have about 1000 unread books, probably – if a tenth of them are as good as Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs (2005) is, then I’ve got some definite treats ahead of me. Thank you Charley, for buying this for my birthday in (gulp) 2010.
Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs was published as Time Was Soft There in the US, but for some reason the publishers decided we Brits couldn’t cope with such high-flown language, and gave us this variant title – rather unfairly, since at one point it is made clear that there weren’t any bedbugs. I’m getting ahead of myself – this is Mercer’s non-fiction account of living in Paris’s famous Shakespeare & Co bookshop for a year. I’ve visited it myself – indeed, the first ever photograph I put of myself on Stuck-in-a-Book is outside the shop – and although it isn’t much of a treasure trove for the secondhand bibliophile, being mostly new books now, it is an amazing place to visit.
But I was a few years too late to move in. Although (unbeknownst to me) George Whitman was still alive when I visited in 2010 – he died in 2011 – it was no longer a haven for artistic types from around the world. When Jeremy Mercer arrived at the turn of the 21st century, he could not really be considered an artistic type. Before I started reading Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs, I’d rather assumed it would be about cosy, literary folk, and that Mercer myself would be the sort of bespectacled, cardigan-wearing book-fiend that I am myself. Turns out, no. He was only in Paris (from his native America) because someone had threatened his life after some criminal confidences were broken. Mercer was a crime reporter who also wrote trashy true crime books, and his past exploits include attacking a neighbour and drug dealing. Not exactly a lovable guy – and, although he is mostly repentant, I have to say I had a hard time reading the bits where he complained about being judged for attacking the neighbour. Hmm.
But, if Mercer isn’t exactly a man I’d invite round for a night watching As Time Goes By, he certainly knows how to write an engaging memoir. In exchange for bed and board, he was chiefly expected to help out around the shop, and follow George’s often curious whims:
The official store hours were noon to midnight, but most days George opened earlier to accommodate the crowds. The major rule was that residents were expected to be out of bed in the morning to cart out boxes of books for the sidewalk display and sweep the floors before the customers arrived. Beyond that, George liked everyone to help out for an hour each day, whether it be sorting books, washing dishes, or performing minor carpentry chores. More idealistically, George also asked each resident to read a book a day from the library. Kurt said many chose plays and novellas to meet the quota, but he was still tackling novels.
George does sound rather a strange taskmaster, expecting everyone to live on food taken from restaurants as they close for the night, criticising anyone for spending any money at all – but then losing thousands of francs by leaving the till unattended or hiding wads of notes behind books (some of which ended up being a nest for mice.) George is 86 at the time that Mercer moves in, and as eccentric as they come – but still with an affection for young ladies. This isn’t romantically reciprocated by any of them, but it does explain why so many young women find themselves working curious hours at Shakespeare & Co. And then Mercer discovers that George has a teenage daughter, and decides to reunite them…
That’s quite a big moment in the memoir, engineering significant upheaval, but for the most part Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs just tells of Mercer’s everyday experiences with the hopeful, but yet slightly hopeless, artistic people surrounding him – from the ageing poet Simon to handsome, lost Kurt. It;s not at all the portrait of Shakespeare & Co that I was expecting, but it is a fascinating glimpse into a small society that has only recently disappeared, and yet stretches back to the camaraderie and ethos of another time.