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Wednesday, 29 March 2006 00:00

Books that evoke special times

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Sometimes a book touches our hearts in a very special way. In the winter and spring of 1978, having saved from our combined incomes of the previous year, my wife and I celebrated our January wedding by traveling for three months to Europe. We lived there cheaply, as young people traditionally do. With friends we shared an apartment in Switzerland for a month. In March we fell in love with Italy, staying in rooms for as little as $4 per night and exploring Rome and the southern coastline.

We spent April in Paris. Our room near the Odeon — with a bath down the hall and a French breakfast every morning — cost less than the apartment we rented a month later in Charlottesville, Va.

We walked a dozen miles daily, drinking and eating provisions bought from the small neighborhood grocery stores and touring the city from its sewers to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

We also discovered Shakespeare & Co. This was not the original bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach and frequented by authors like Hemingway and Joyce — that store had died during the German Occupation — but was instead the shop of the now legendary George Whitman.

I can still remember entering the store for the first time. It was near Notre Dame, and the men were selling books from carts along the Seine. Kris and I had tracked the store down after reading about it in a guidebook. As we browsed the crowded shelves, a man in his 60s, thin and tall, and with a pointed beard, approached me, pointed to the copy of Anna Karenina under my arm, and asked me something in Russian. I told him I didn't speak Russian. (This was true, though I’d had three semesters of Russian in a military college, a course that left me permanently confused by the Cyrillic alphabet, but with the ability to say “I love you,” “I surrender” and “You son-of-a-b * * * *” in Russian, which was about all I figured I might need in any armed confrontation.)

On my return visits to the store — I went back five or six times by myself, simply to read while my wife napped or window-shopped — I was invited by this same man, George Whitman, to make myself at home in one of the private upstairs rooms of the store. Here I read my Russian authors, chatted briefly with others who were also invited there, and wondered about the identity of the man who had given me such wonderful comforts.

In his Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. (ISBN 0312-34739-1), Jeremy Mercer tells us about George Whitman, surely one of the great eccentrics in a trade rife with eccentricity. Having pulled up stakes in Canada — Mercer as a crime reporter had gotten involved with the underworld, perhaps too deeply involved — Jeremy Mercer arrived in Paris looking for a place to settle for a time, a place to write a book, a place in which he might put his life back together.

After nearly running out of funds, Mercer found such a place at Shakespeare & Co. Like me, and like so many thousands of others, he quickly became aware of the unique aspects of this bookshop: its dingy intimacy, its offer of beds to a variety of writers and drifters, its near non-existent toilet facilities, the absence of a credit card machine and telephone, and of course, George Whitman himself.

Though rumor made George a descendent of the poet Walt Whitman — someone in the bookshop told me that he was one of Whitman’s great nephews — he was apparently no relation to this 19th century poet. After playing several roles in his youth — soldier, businessman, hobo, factory worker, Communist sympathizer — George opened a bookstore in Paris. Aimed at an English-speaking clientele, Shakespeare & Co. grew both in terms of its books and its reputation until it had become the legend that it is today.

Though pedestrian in style, Mercer’s account of Paris, of books, of the eccentrics attracted not just by Shakespeare & Co. but by second-hand bookstores in general, and of George Whitman himself should appeal to a wide range of readers.

•••

Much closer to home is George Loveland’s account of the employee takeover of the Champion Paper mill in Canton. Under The Workers’ Caps: From Champion Mill to Blue Ride Paper (ISBN 1-57233-365-0) tells the story of the negotiations that took place to bring Champion mill into the hands of the people who worked there, bargaining that eventually led to one of the largest employee buyouts in the history of the United States.

Loveland gives an in-depth account of this process, including all the players: company officials, union reps, environmentalists and the workers themselves. He avoids what could have been a dry technical account of the bargaining procedures not only by his lively prose and ample quotations, but also by remembering always that human beings and not facts or figures are at the center of such a deal.

Loveland enhances his account of this change in the mill’s fortunes by giving the reader the background history of the plant, its union, and its impact on our region, both in terms of people and the environment. Such forays bring us a greater appreciation for all that was at stake in the time of these negotiations.

Finally, Loveland shows us the enormous damage done to our region by NAFTA, by other trade agreements, and by the world’s shifting economy. Western North Carolina lost tens of thousands of jobs to overseas contracts and factories. Although the fate of Blue Ridge Paper remains uncertain — there were million-dollar losses at the plant again this year, though leaders in the company remain optimistic about its chances — it is clear that, for better or for worse, the economy of our state and our country have experienced an enormous shift in the last 35 years. Within the next 35 years, we shall, I suspect, see what happens to a country whose manufacturing base has been so savaged by politics and by the machinations both of labor unions and wealthy entrepreneurs.

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