Books, baguettes and bedbugs : the Left Bank world of Shakespeare and Company

Although Books, baguettes and bedbugs is a traveler’s tale is set at the famous Shakespeare and Company book shop, it is not THE Shakespeare and Co. established by Sylvia Beach. Shakespeare and Co. as portrayed in this book, is operated by George Whitman (no relationship to Walt Whitman). Whitman has run the store since 1951.  After the death of Sylvia Beach, who founded the first Shakespeare and Co. in 1919. Whitman bought Beach’s collection of books for his book shop Le Mistral and on the 400th anniversary (1964) of William Shakespeare’s birth he rebaptised his store “Shakespeare and Company”. A very opportunistic move which Whitman no doubt profited significantly from.

If you’re expecting the romanticism of Paris and the nostalgia of the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop nestled on the Left Bank opposite Notre Dame to give this memoir a golden aura you will be sadly disappointed. Whitman turned his store in to a part book store, part alternate traveler’s hostel and refuge for writer’s and general misfits. Whitman is attracted to Marxist, Communist ideals and lives life by the creed “give what you can; take what you need” and the store motto “be kind to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise”.

This traveler’s memoir tells the story of Jeremy Mercer, who writes for an overseas newspaper, reporting sensational crime stories until one day he makes a very bad choice, the consequences force him to flee countries. He finds himself in Paris and after spending his last francs he finds himself fairly down and out in Paris. It is upon an ambling walk along the Seine that he stumbles upon the book store and the prospect of free lodgings presents itself. Mercer promptly moves in with a collection of other free-boarder-questionable-literary-types. They find themselves having to “wash” in café bathrooms, eating at student cafeterias, and picking up stray coins from a wishing well in order to purchase cheap bottles of Bordeaux wine. This tale was interesting in parts, entrenched in parts and somewhat eye-opening. Not the rose-coloured image in which beautiful Paris is usually presented.