Sunday, January 08, 2012

Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer is a memoir I've been hearing about for years. I came across my copy (acquired via Paperback Swap but promptly set aside) whilst deep cleaning and eagerly dived into the reading.

For those who aren't familiar with the store: Shakespeare & Co. is a Paris bookstore, famously known not only for its books but also for housing a rotating community of scruffy, soup-eating hopeful authors. Mercer stayed at the store while attempting to figure out what to do with his life.

After giving up his crime-reporting job due to a death threat, the author traveled to Paris but he ate through his savings rapidly. His memoir tells about fleeing his Canadian hometown in fear, his early days in Paris, time at Shakespeare & Co., and the literary magazine he and another resident eventually began to publish, Kilometer Zero.

Although Time Was Soft There is a memoir, it's not merely about the author's experience. Mercer also describes Shakespeare & Company's history and owner George Whitman's life. Whitman has since passed away (but he apparently lived to 98 -- maybe there's something to just living with the dirt, rather than trying to keep everything squeaky clean). The store lives on.

Although I was too busy to read much, Time Was Soft There went with me to Nashville during our Christmas holiday, along with several other books, and was the only book I bothered to continue reading when I had a spare moment. During those spare moments, I read a bit on the "rabidly" side.

I'm not quite sure what exactly I expected -- certainly not the mention of insect life, but perhaps the grubbiness of the store's residents -- however, in many ways the book was far better than anticipated. I loved the fact that Time Was Soft There is part memoir, part bio of the store's owner, part history. Memoirs run the gamut from humble to self-aggrandizing and Time Was Soft There strikes a nice balance.

Addendum: I'd completely forgotten that I read an excerpt from Time Was Soft There in Paris Was Ours (<---link to my review), which I read early in 2011. Thanks to editor Penelope Rowlands for the reminder. That particular excerpt was one of my favorites; no wonder I went into the reading with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Recommended to memoir-loving book fiends.

On a related note, we watched Midnight in Paris, two nights ago. The entire time we were watching, I kept hoping Shakespeare & Co. would show up. Sure enough, there was a brief image. Too brief, really, but I made a little noise of excitement when the bookstore finally made an appearance. Husband was baffled. What, pray tell, was so exciting about that extremely minimal view of the bookstore? he asked (my wording). "I just read about it," I said. "Oh." Shrug. There's really no accounting for crazy book people, I suppose.

In case you're interested, Kiddo and I loved the movie (about a writer who is transported to the Twenties, where he hangs out with the expat artistic crowd gathered in Paris), even though there's no escaping the usual feel of a Woody Allen movie. I thought Owen Wilson did a spectacular job of portraying a Woody Allen role without the usual stiffness and odd gestures that make Allen's movies come across looking so staged. I do like a few Woody Allen films, just not many. Midnight in Paris is loads of fun for the literary-adoration crowd. We laughed a lot, Kiddo and I. Husband left the room. He said it was way too "typical Woody Allen" for his taste.

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I want to track down a copy of this book. Running away from a death threat certainly wouldn't be fun, but hanging out in a Paris bookstore full of writers does!

  2. Janel,

    Yes, I do believe the "hanging out in a bookstore full of writers" part trumps the death threat bit. It's a fascinating read. I recommend tracking it down.

  3. I had this book out from the library a couple times and STILL haven't found time to read it...

  4. Anonymous8:05 PM

    Despite the fact that I usually avoid Woody Allen and his movies like the plague, I loved Midnight in Paris. Hemingway and Dali cracked me up.

  5. Kelly,

    Maybe it's time to check the accuracy of that old saw, "The third time's the charm"?

    Fizzy Jill,

    Yep, same here. Hemingway and Dali both had me in stitches. And, I do usually avoid Woody Allen movies. The two I like are *ancient*. Bellezza gushed about Midnight in Paris or I'd have given it a wide berth (in spite of that fabulous poster-slash-DVD-cover).

  6. You are KILLING my wishlist Nancy!! This is now two books you've added to my wishlist in five minutes :p Sounds excellent!

  7. Chris,

    Oh, dear. Well . . . I loved the book, so I can't find it in myself to talk you out of adding this one to your wish list, budget be damned. Maybe PBS will have a copy for you. :)

  8. I had the same moment when Djuna Barnes was mentioned in passing in the film -- I squealed and my whole section turned to stare at me.

    I'll have to pick up this book -- it sounds like my kind of thing. I'm pretty iffy on memoirs so I rather like that combined focus on person/place.

  9. Audra,

    LOL It's probably a good thing I saw the movie in my house!

    Memoirs are iffy because you just never know if the author's personality is going to grate. Jeremy Mercer is a pleasant narrator, not annoying in any way (in my opinion); and the mix of bio and history along with his own story is really nicely done. I hope you love it! I need to add "recommended" to my labels. I just noticed that's missing.

  10. We just watched Midnight in Paris the other night too! My husband and I were laughing because of his likeness to Hemingway in the scene when they are drinking and he randomly shouts out, "Who wants to fight!?"

    Such a great picture of these greats. I loved the movie.

  11. Nikki, Nikki,

    I was just thinking of you, today! I've been working on my review of The Black Madonna (which I think you would like) and pondering where I should go, this summer. Also, Husband is about to abandon me for a week in northern Italy, soon. Grrr. Maybe I'll dash off to Germany without him. I'm finding that Girls' Trips are an awful lot of fun.

    Isn't Midnight in Paris great? LOL about the scene with Hemingway resembling your hubby. Hemingway was one of my favorites. The idea that he spoke exactly like he wrote is both hilarious and surprisingly easy to swallow. So, now you must videotape your husband acting out that scene. ;)

  12. Midnight in Paris was a beautiful film. I'm going to look into this book now. Thanks for the recommendation.

  13. Melissa,

    Both are a book lover's dream. A movie about authors. A book about life in a bookstore. I hope you love the book!

  14. I just came across your blog for the first time today and saw this post. Coincidentally, although I hadn't been particularly into Paris as a subject, I saw Midnight in Paris in December and received Time Was Soft There as a Christmas gift. Enjoyed the movie except it was a little disconcerting having what was essentially Woody Allen's voice coming out of a younger actor's body! Am enjoying the book as bedtime reading. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Hello! Thanks for dropping by my blog, Laurie! I'm not necessarily "into" Paris, either, but I seem to end up reading a lot of books set in Paris. I just got another one. Glad you're enjoying Time Was Soft There! That sensation that you're hearing Woody Allen through his characters is ever-present in his movies and the reason I don't normally like them. I thought Owen Wilson did better than most at downplaying the Woody Allenish tone.


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