New Leaf | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Jeremy Mercer started out as a victim of "golden handcuffs": Like many of us, he was trapped in a mundane cycle of privilege and bill-paying, working to maintain a lifestyle. As a crime reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, he fought a rising sense of job dissatisfaction. "I was reporting on rape, pedophilia, murder, drunk driving," he says. "I was becoming very cynical."



All that changed in 1999, when Mercer published his second crime novel. Inadvertently, the book contained the name of a true-life Canadian thug. In the middle of the night, Mercer received an ominous phone call: This fellow was displeased with the disclosure, and delivered a death threat. After hiding out at a girlfriend's for several weeks, Mercer returned home to find his place burglarized. This guy was not bluffing.


But the death threat proved a catalyst for positive change. Mercer sold all of his possessions, sublet his car, and moved to Paris. Broke and on the verge of homelessness, he found himself at a tea party among the denizens of Shakespeare & Co., an independent bookstore noteworthy for its eccentric staff. Mercer befriended George Whitman, the store's 89-year-old proprietor, and was drawn into an underground literary scene. For five months, he lived among the shelves at Shakespeare & Co., reading a book a day and making friends along the way.


Mercer's new book, Time Was Soft There, documents his adventures amongst the Parisian literary class. By creating an intimate memoir of the legendary bookstore, Mercer tells a tale of bohemian adventure that simultaneously explores the history of a landmark. Yet ultimately, Time Was Soft There is a story of redemption: As the author grows to appreciate literature, he develops a higher purpose for his own art, and comes to fruit both as a writer and a person. Compared to his crime novels, the book is also far less likely to elicit death threats.


It's only natural that Mercer's lecture tour is hosted entirely by independent bookstores. "I love all bookstores, whether it's or something like Barnes & Noble. The point is, they're selling books, and that's great," Mercer says. "But I really love independents. They're community-centered, you can drop in and meet people. It's like a family."


This Thursday, he stops by Joseph-Beth Booksellers (admittedly a rather large-scale independent) for an author chat. A charming character, Mercer will entertain, though he hopes to inspire readers bound in their own "golden handcuffs" as well. "I might ramble and rant a bit," he says. "But I might inspire people to break out and take a risk, do something they wouldn't normally do." He adds, "The only thing we can't afford in life is regrets."

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