Jan 25, 2010

Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer

Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer

Jeremy Mercer is a crime reporter from Canada who, displeased with the course his life has taken (and also frightened by what appears to be a job-related death threat), one day decides to leave everything behind to go to Paris. There, he ends up staying at George Whitman’s legendary Shakespeare & Company bookstore (not to be confused with the original Sylvia Beach store), which has been a safe harbour for writers and intellectuals in need of a place to stay for over four decades. Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs is both a memoir of Mercer’s months at the store and a history of the place itself, as well as a biography of sorts of the man who founded it.

It’s so difficult to write about a book I both really enjoyed and didn’t care for much at all. What I liked were the historical and bookish bits—the history of Shakespeare & Company as a stronghold of counter-culture, the anecdotes about the literary figures that stopped there over the years, and even the biographical information about George Whitman, who sounds like a very interesting man (though by “interesting” I don’t necessarily mean pleasant: considering that he wanted to evict one of the bookstore’s residents for reading mysteries, I have a feeling he wouldn’t let me and my foul comic-ish and fantasy-ish ways even cross the threshold).

What I wasn’t so crazy about were the more personal parts about Mercer’s life—and such is the curse of the memoir. I have to find someone extremely interesting to want to read about them in detail. Plus I think memoirs sometimes suffer from another problem, and this might have been the case here: because what’s being described is presented as fact, their authors sometimes don’t go out of their way to make it feel true. But it doesn’t really matter whether or not something really happened if it doesn’t come alive on the pages. When reading Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs, I sometimes felt I needed a little more in terms of storytelling to really become immersed in Shakespeare & Company’s atmosphere.

Another thing I sometimes had a problem with was the tone: there were moments when I couldn’t take it seriously because it felt somewhat boastful, artificial, and trying a little too hard to be hip – a little too “Oh man, let me tell you about that time I crashed at that crazy bookshop in Paris, it was sooo rad, we played at being poor and I hooked up with a hot exotic girl and it was so awesome, maaan” for my taste. This probably sounds meaner than I intend it to, and it could easily be as much me as the book, but it occasionally bothered me.

But I don’t want to leave you thinking I hated the book, so let me return to the positives: The history surrounding Shakespeare & Company is truly fascinating, and I hope that the problems Mercer describes about its future have been solved by now: they debated creating a foundation similar to the one behind City Lights in San Francisco, whose founder is George Whitman’s friend, but the idea didn't seem to take off. Whitman, by the way, was 86 at the time Mercer stayed at the bookstore, and was still actively running it. Now, at 96, he has finally passed the management of the bookstore to his daughter, but he’s still around.

But let me show you what I mean about the place’s history:
The finishing touch to these archives were the autobiographies from forty years of bookstore visitors. Stashed around the store were the scribbled stories of anyone from Allen Ginsberg to John Denver and they gave tantalizing glimpses of anyone who passed through Shakespeare and Company. Astonishingly, the themes kept repeating themselves: people disillusioned with mainstream culture, looking for a place to lick their wounds, yearning to make the world a better place.
They discuss the possibility of having a librarian come in and catalogue everything, but Whitman’s constant generosity to the complete strangers he houses and often feeds means this is not something Shakespeare & Company could really afford. Still, I instantly started daydreaming about being that librarian. How fantastic would that be? It’s not too different a job from the one I currently have, actually, except the bit about it being a hundred times more exciting.

For a glimpse of Shakespeare & Company, here’s the opening scene of one of my favourite movies, which is set at the store (the opening scene, that is, not the whole movie):

(A side note about that book idea Ethan Hawke’s character says he had: the other day I remembered it, and spent the whole day trying to figure out what book that premise was from, and also thinking that I really had to read it. Eventually I asked my boyfriend, who solemnly informed that sadly it belonged to a fictional book. Boooo.)

Other opinions:
Fleur Fish Reads
My Cozy Book Nook (Time Was Soft There is the book’s American title.)
Sassymonkey Reads

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. You always find the most interesting book, Nymeth! I'm not sure if I'd read this but the title sure sounds good to me! ;)

  2. I second Melody...how do you find these books? I love that title and I've been fascinated by Shakespeare and Co. for years ever since a book about the Lost Generation of Hemmingway, Stein, Joyce, etc... and how they used to hang out at that bookshop. I'll probably be turned off by the tone you mentioned but who can resist a book with that subject matter and that title?

  3. I watched some documentary videos on youtube on Shakespeare and Co. It was very memorable. Will I be able to visit one day? One can only hope :)

  4. I had to giggle when you were describing the hip, boasting attitude of the book! I'd like to get that on a vlog! You know, with all the elements of this memoir, it has the potential to be a charming, cozy, heartwarming read. Sounds like it only partially delivered, which is a lost opportunity.

  5. I'm intrigued enough to see if my library has a copy... it sounds like I'd really like at least half of this ;-)

  6. I had this book on my wish-list as I love Shakespeare and Company but now I'm not so sure ... it's not that you made it sound bad as it is a balanced review but you didn't enthuse; when you enthuse about a book, when you gush, I know that it is a book that I have to read.

  7. “Oh man, let me tell you about that time I crashed at that crazy bookshop in Paris, it was sooo rad, we played at being poor and I hooked up with a hot exotic girl and it was so awesome, maaan”...you so totally cracked me up...I woke poor Bacon with my laughing. :D

  8. My feelings were very similar to yours - I loved the bookshop but didn't really care for the subject matter. I'm sure that there's another book about the shop but I have yet to find it. I pounced on a book called Shakespeare & Co in the library, but it turned out tobe about a playwright of the same name...

  9. I love the idea of Shakespeare and Company so I'm sad to hear this book was not all that it could be (perhaps another visiting writer should try it). However it's the history of the store and its owners I'm most interested in so may give it a go.

  10. Where do you find these books? I want to come out book shopping with you one day. I love the sound of this shop, it sounds like heaven. Sorry to hear you didn't especially like his voice and the personal parts of his life. Though I have to say I am hooked. Going on my list! Love the cover too.

  11. Yeah...I think I'll pass. I love memoirs, and I don't even mind that they're self-indulgent and a little unreliable, but it takes a certain kind of memoir for me and this doesn't sound like it.

  12. I was immediately drawn to the cover, before I even read your post, thinking that it would be about Paris. There's something about that city that makes it so uniquely special; the cover reminds me of the book I'm currently reading about an American who moved to Paris and found a piano atelier of his dreams. This book of yours looks wonderful, and like it would be a nice follow up to the one I'm finishing. Personally, I could move to Paris in a heartbeat. (Or, Italy. ;)

  13. Hmm, to write a memoir in the first place, don't you have to be a bit egotistical, believing other people will be interested in your life? I am not huge on memoirs myself. I read some, but they are not my favorite. Think I'll give this one a miss, too. Thanks for the review!

  14. As many times as I've been to Paris, I've never been to Shakespeare and Co. I think I might enjoy this book for the bookish elements and because it's set in Paris.

  15. Memoir authors have to have a certain degree of likability for me to read their book. They don't have to be perfect, or always do the right thing, but I have to like them.

    On another note, I love Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Great films.

  16. I love bookstore books. You know, if I was actually playing bad bloggers, you'd be winning. :-D

  17. H m m m, I'm sorry it didn't work out wonderfully for you. :( Maaaaaan, you made me laugh with your 'bro' portrayal. :D

  18. Sometimes, those books which have so much detracting from it but which we still end up liking are the most difficult to review. You did a fantastic job! Thanks for sharing your honest opinions.

  19. I felt much like you did - the bookstore sounded amazing, but I didn't engage with Mercer's personal life.

    (Off to watch Before Sunset again now.)

  20. Rad, man, rad....this does sound a bit too...pretentious(?) hipsterish(?) for my tastes...but it's interesting...and sounds like it could be really cool in someone else's hands. And I absolutely love the title :)

    Now off with you and your naughty comics and fantasy fluff!!

  21. excellent review nymeth!
    it can be frustrating to be reading a book that you both enjoy and dislike at the same time. That happened to me with Love in the Time of Cholera.

  22. I have nothing to say about the book, but oh how I love that movie! I just watched the whole thing again on YouTube...I could not stop just after that clip! :)

  23. Melody: This was a Christmas gift, so it was found for me :P

    Mrs B: It was my boyfriend who found it - I'll have to ask him where! The Shakespeare & Company of Stein, Joyce and etc's day was the original Sylvia Beach store, which was closed during WW2 - but this one shares its spirit, if not the location!

    Mee: I hope we both make it there!

    Sandy: lol, I wish I were brave enough to vlog that :P It could have been all that, yes, which is why I was sad that it only was sometimes!

    JoAnn: lol - at least half is worthwhile, yep :P

    Claire: This one isn't gush-worthy, no :P But still worth a try!

    Debi: I have actually met people like that :P

    Fleurfish: I would so love to find another book about the store! We'll both have to keep our eyes open, and let the other know if we do find it :P

    Jodie: I hope another writer does! The history was fascinating.

    Vivienne: Under the Christmas tree! :P And yes, the cover is beautiful. There's an actual bookshop cat too!

    Amanda: I have a complicated relationship with memoirs, as you might have guessed by now :P

    Bellezza: Oooh, your book sounds wonderful! I can't believe I still haven't made it to Paris. It's not that far from me!

    Aarti: I guess, but then again that goes for fiction too, with "story" replacing "life" :P I don't know why I'm harsher when it comes to memoirs, but I am.

    Kathy: I bet you'd love the setting! There's quite a bit about the city :)

    Christy: Same here. And I love those films too :D

    softdrink: lol, good to know :P

    She: :D

    Michelle: They are! And thank you so much.

    Jenny: Now I want to watch it again too :P

    Chris: lol, more hipsterish than pretentious, and even then, that's not quite the word. Boastful, I guess? But there were good bits too!

    Naida: It really can!

    Priscilla: The only thing that stopped me was the fact that I had to leave for work :P

  24. You make a good point about the relevance of memoirs. I am not sure this would be the book for me because the quasi-hipness would indeed bother me. I am glad that you found most of the book to your liking, but the parts that bothered you would have put me off totally. Thanks for this review, I had been debating if I should try this book or not, and now I know!

  25. Always so tempting to pick the bookish books up, but they do disappoint sometimes. I think that the reading memoirs I enjoy most are solely about a reading life - not the rest of the life that folds in around that endeavor. An overly self-conscious voice turns me off as does an author that places himself above the reading material in the narrative. Not sure whether I will read this one but great write-up.

  26. What a great title. I don't know that I would like the tone of it from what you described but I'd definitely give it a go and see. This sort of reminds me of Sixpence House. Have you read it? It's a memoir as well about a guy who goes to Hay-on-Wye. I so wanted to love the book but little things bugged me.

  27. Um, can I just say that Before Sunset is one of my favourite movies ever too!?!?!?! I swear, I've only met one other person who lists it as a favourite. It's just SO good. I own it, and I think I watch it at least every other month, if not more. :)

  28. Hello!

    I found your opinion of why some memoirs fail to grab you (the "because what’s being described is presented as fact, their authors sometimes don’t go out of their way to make it feel true.") thought provoking.

    I hope you do not mind that I used your quote (with link to this entry) in my LiveJournal.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.