Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer
The setting of Shakespeare and Company is presided over by then-octogenarian George Whitman, owner and king of his bookstore, which is a notable spot for the foreign tourist. Shakespeare and Company is a destination in travel guides and bibliophiles are very welcome. In this store, there are books in every nook and cranny.
George lets his poverty-stricken employees live at the store for free (there are beds in some rooms of the store along with bookshelves), as long as they work a bit selling books, and more importantly, as long as they are writing and reading. The literary pursuit is the most noble profession. George Whitman declared: ‘Not reading is worse than not knowing how to read.’
George opened Shakespeare and Company in 1951 and the expatriate crowd were frequently seen there. Notable writers drifted in and out: Richard Wright, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Samuel Beckett, and William Burroughs being just a sampling. Jeremy and his fellow employees were the latest in this long lineage. And Jeremy recalls his luck at finding Shakespeare and Company when he was feeling desperate:
‘In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes. Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights. That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too.’
At Shakespeare and Company, the dankness of the residents/employees who have no shower facilities along with the books of varying age and the bustle of Paris rolling in day after day, the store is a little earthy. But poverty can be a minuscule problem when one is surrounded by friends and Jeremy learns the cheapest way to get by in Paris. And once a week George serves a communal meal for his employees:
‘The food did smell appetizing, but I was slightly distressed by the state of the kitchen. Along with the dried cockroach husks I had seen the day of the tea party, there were now several live ones scurrying among the sticky jars and empty tins. — ‘Aren’t those a problem?’ I worried over George’s shoulder. — ‘Bahh, they’re nothing,’ he scoffed, and tried to swat a roach or two into the potatoes. ‘More protein for us. Don’t you like protein?’
Regardless of the living conditions, Jeremy is surrounded by books, and is taken care of by his friends. And throughout the book, George always, notably, argues his communist point of view.
‘People all tell me they work too much, that they need to make more money,” George told me. ‘What’s the point? Why not live on as little as possible and then spend your time with your family or reading Tolstoy or running a bookstore? It doesn’t make any sense.’
George Whitman died in 2011 at the age of 98.