1. Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company by Jeremy Mercer.
The title of Jeremy Mercer's book comes from a line in his book, Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company. He writes "hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter.... time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I'd ever felt." This account of his time living at the Paris landmark is as much about the characters that reside at the famous bookstore as the books themselves, but books are ever-present in his narrative.
Mercer was a crime reporter in Canada who felt forced to flee to France following a threat on his life in late 1999. As he runs out of money and faces the prospect of living on the streets of Paris, he is invited to live at Shakespeare and Company by the owner, George Whitman, an expatriate American who has run the store since the 1950's and who claims to "run a socialist utopia that masquerades as a bookstore."
Whitman was not, as he claimed early in his life, the son of the poet Walt Whitman, and his bookshop is not the same as Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company, the store that published Ulysses and closed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Rather, this store is the sister store to the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and Whitman was a longtime friend of its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Though Mercer is the narrator, and we learn much about his life before and during his time at Shakespeare and Company, Whitman is the central character of this book. We learn of his struggles to keep the store from falling into the hands of real estate developers, his unique ways of keeping the residents of the store fed, and his fascinating life story. Most importantly, we learn of his lifelong commitment to the idea that books are important, that they matter to us both as individuals and as a society.
2. Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins
This memoir tells the story of Collins' time living in a book lovers dream: the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. With only 1500 residents and 40 bookstores, it is truly a bibliophile's nirvana, especially if you love old books. Collins and his wife relocated there from San Francisco with their young son in the hope of finding a more idyllic life, and their attempts to purchase a house in the town, while having nothing to do with books, is as hilarious for us as it was frustrating for them.
The centerpiece of the town, and the place book lovers will most want to visit someday, is Hay Castle, a centuries-old castle now converted into a rambling bookstore and owned by Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed king of Hay-on-Wye. After meeting Booth, Collins spent a brief period attempting, with limited success, to organize the American Literature section at the castle. The remainder of Collins' time is divided between revising his first book, wandering through the town's myriad of second-hand bookshops, and trying to navigate English real estate laws that would drive most Americans mad.
Sixpence House is an entertaining read that will have book lovers planning their next vacation around the annual Hay Festival, hoping to find a rare gem of a book in the mountainous stacks of Hay Castle. But make your reservations early; the event that former President Bill Clinton called "the Woodstock of the Mind" is Britain's little secret no longer, thanks in part to Sixpence House.
3. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
This year marks the 43rd anniversary of the publication of what may be the most unlikely New York Times bestseller ever: Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road. It is not even a book in the conventional sense, but rather a collection of letters exchanged by Ms. Hanff and London bookseller Frank Doel (and other staff members) between 1949 and 1969. The fact that it is such a slim volume (only 96 pages) makes its runaway success in 1970 even more amazing.
But 84 Charing Cross Road is a perfect example of why you can't judge a book by its cover, its length, or the unorthodox nature of its content. Ultimately what makes the book work is what makes any book work, whether fiction or nonfiction: the relationships between the characters. And for readers today, the way the relationships develop are not simply interesting in themselves, but also because of the manner in which they happen. In our age of instant communication, the often leisurely pace of the letters between Helene and Frank are a window into an era now lost.
The correspondence begins in 1949 as Ms. Hanff is searching for clean copies of used books she is unable to find near her home in New York City. This alone will seem strange to readers accustomed to using the Internet to find any book ever published, but before the advent of eBay and Amazon.com, books that went out of print could only be found through used and antiquarian booksellers, who themselves had to conduct exhaustive and time-consuming searches. She writes to London booksellers Marks & Co. requesting certain titles she cannot locate, and thus begins the 20 years of correspondence that makes up the book.
Helene Hanff was a prolific writer during her life, but her letters in 84 Charing Cross Road prove that she may have missed her true calling as a stand-up comic. Many of her letters are laugh-out-loud funny, made more so when juxtaposed with Frank Doel's typically proper and reserved English responses. Their exchange over a mix-up regarding a Latin New Testament is priceless, especially given that Hanff was Jewish.
The books she orders are a veritable Masters class in Literature, ranging from Chaucer to Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. A lover of books could do worse than simply reading all of the titles mentioned in Hanff and Doel's correspondence. But had this just been an exchange of book orders and invoices it would not have grabbed the public imagination in such a way that the book is still loved 40 years later, as well as having been adapted into both a play and a film. Helene goes beyond being a simple customer, becoming involved in the lives of the store's staff, celebrating their joys, mourning their losses, and caring for their physical needs in a very real way.
England after the end of World War II was subject to severe rationing that lasted for many years. Upon learning that her new friends couldn't get things like meat or real eggs, she began sending regular food parcels to them, especially at holidays. One such parcel caused her to send a panicked follow-up letter: she had sent a ham before realizing that the owners of the shop were Jewish and offered to "rush over a tongue." The staff (six in all) respond by sending her photos of their families, first-edition books, and teaching her how to make Yorkshire Pudding. Throughout this two-decade friendship she planned to travel to London to meet everyone in person, yet seemed to always be put off by some unexpected event.
84 Charing Cross Road is at its core a book about lovers of books and bookstores, and is at the same time one of the funniest and most touching books you'll ever read. I am thankful their correspondence came at a time when people both wrote and kept letters; such a book would likely never have been possible in the era of e-mail, and that would have been a very great loss.