Literary History: Sylvia Beach and the Shakespeare & Company Bookshop

Sylvia Beach in the doorway of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris | Photo by Gisèle Freund, 1939

Someone I've been particularly interested in and inspired by lately is Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate who founded the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris in 1919. The shop served as the backdrop for one of the city's greatest artistic eras; it was a gathering place for prolific writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein through its twenty year life. (The current Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris was named after Beach's store in the '60s and the current proprietor, founder George Whitman's daughter, was named after Sylvia Beach herself.) I've always been enchanted by Shakespeare and Company, so much so that I hope to visit its namesake should I ever get to Paris; an English-language bookstore in the city of lights sounds like it was just about made for me.

Sylvia Beach with James Joyce
Sylvia Beach with James Joyce

Beach was also a supporter of aspiring authors, and she famously published James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 when Joyce was desperate for an English edition to be printed. I'm always fascinated by the women who have played pivotal roles in the literary arts throughout history, and Sylvia is certainly one of them. That she successfully founded and maintained Shakespeare and Company at a time when it was largely uncommon for women to be at the helm of such endeavors is inspiring enough, but that she navigated the world of publishing as well is admirable. (Not to mention that she spent her days in the company of such eccentric and unpredictable personalities as writers.) Incidentally, Joyce would eventually abandon her for another publisher, leaving her in severe debt at the cost of first publishing Ulysses. Sylvia was forced to close Shakespeare and Company in 1941 during the German occupation; when an officer threatened that he would close the shop she and her friends hid every volume in an upstairs apartment, where they remained for years.

Sylvia Beach with Adrienne Monnier
Sylvia Beach with Adrienne Monnier

Beach also did translation work, such as T.S. Eliot's poem The Love Song of J. Alred Prufrock, which she translated with her friend and partner Adrienne Monnier. Monnier was another bookshop owner, and one of the first French women to open a bookstore in Paris. After closing Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia wrote a memoir - the aptly named Shakespeare and Company - which details her experiences in Paris between the wars and illustrates the literary giants who spent time at the shop. Needless to say, it's on my reading list, as well as a few other books I've found on Sylvia and her store.

If you're interested in discovering more about Sylvia Beach, here are some titles to get you started. I also recommend the documentary Paris The Luminous Years, which explores the artistic history of Paris in the early decades of the twentieth century, and Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man, a documentary about the second Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

Shakespeare and Company

The Letters of Sylvia Beach

Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties

Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation

Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank