By Chloe Rendall
Shakespeare and Company was one of four bookshops in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century selling English-language books. The other three, W. H. Smith, Brentano’s and the Galignani Library (Librairie Galignani) were run by British managers, but Shakespeare and Company was founded and managed by American expatriate Sylvia Beach. Beach, eager to start her own bookshop, fell in love with Adrienne Monnier, a bookseller in Paris whose bookshop had been one of the first to be owned by a woman in France. Beach consequently decided to found her own bookshop there. In 1919 Beach opened Shakespeare and Company at 8 rue Dupuytren, with support from her mother and Monnier. In 1921 the shop moved to larger premises at 12 rue de l’Odeon, just across from Monnier’s shop La Maison des Amis des Livres at number 7, in the Latin quarter of the Left Bank. Shakespeare and Company remained in the same location from then until its closure in 1941, providing, like Monnier’s store, books to be borrowed as well as sold. It is telling that the story of Beach’s shop begins by way of intimate relationship and cultural exchange, for the instrumental importance of Shakespeare and Company to the Modernist movement can surely be found in the literary community it nurtured. At the time, Paris was the heart of the Anglo-American Modernist scene, attracting creatives from all over Europe, Britain and America. Shakespeare and Company was a microcosm of the city itself, a hub of the most notable artists and writers of the century. The group of artists famously termed a ‘Lost Generation’ by Gertrude Stein, comprised of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, to name a few, were all visitors to the shop. André Chamson notes that Beach’s shop did ‘more to link England, the United States, Ireland, and France than four great ambassadors combined’. Like her partner Monnier, Beach was known for her promotion and support of aspiring writers, and together the pair championed a new kind of bookselling, one centred on friendship and generosity. Ernest Hemingway dedicates a chapter of his memoir A Moveable Feast to Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company, describing its importance to his life in Paris as a poor, aspiring artist:
‘On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive.’ (p. 31)
Hemingway lauds the service Beach provided, noting that she encouraged him to borrow as many books as he liked, despite him lacking the money to pay the deposit fee. Beach was known not only for her good taste, but also for her belief in the accessibility of literature, never shying away from potentially problematic material. She sold and lent books such as the controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, which was at the time banned in both Britain and her native United States, but perhaps the most famous example of Beach’s fight against censorship came in her dealings with Ulysses. Beach and James Joyce were good friends, and Joyce frequently used the shop as his office, nicknaming it ‘Stratford-on-Odéon’. Beach published Joyce’s experimental and controversial Ulysses, famously turned down by the Woolfs, despite the harsh opposition and labels of obscenity and pornography it was met with. In a letter to a friend, she exclaimed:
‘What a dark age we are living in and what a privilege to behold the spectacle of ignorant men solemnly deciding whether the work of some great writer is suitable for the public to read or not!’ (The Letters of Sylvia Beach, p. 105)
Beach’s Shakespeare and Company closed in December 1941 during the German occupation of France in World War II, not long after Beach allegedly refused to sell her final copy of Finnegans Wake to a Nazi officer. She hid her stock in the apartment above the shop, but she was eventually arrested and spent six months in an internment camp in Vittel, France. (The Letters of Sylvia Beach, xxxii) Hemingway famously ‘liberated’ the store, but Beach’s Shakespeare and Company never opened again. Yet, Beach’s ability to marry hospitality and literature ensured the legacy of her shop. A second Shakespeare and Company, which still exists today, pays homage to Beach’s symbolic shop. Fellow American George Whitman opened Le Mistral in 1951 at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, also on the Left Bank of Paris. Modelled on Beach’s own shop, it became a similar beacon, attracting creatives and intellectuals of the mid 20th century: James Baldwin, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Beach herself was among the famous visitors, and in 1964 Whitman renamed his shop Shakespeare and Company, in memory of both Sylvia and Shakespeare. Whitman’s daughter Sylvia Whitman, who has run the reincarnated Shakespeare and Company since her father’s death in 2011, is too named after Beach.
Beach’s biographer Noël Riley Fitch referred to Sylvia Beach as ‘the midwife of Modernism’ (The Letters of Sylvia Beach, foreword xi), a phrase testament to her vital involvement in the radical movement of the era. Fitch’s term also neatly places Beach in a cycle of pioneers helping the next generation into being; Beach’s shop was reborn and, in George Whitman’s continued hospitality to aspiring bohemian writers, her values endured. Regardless of the treatment Beach received in return for her financial and personal support - Joyce turned his back on her once he achieved fame, despite the measures she had taken to ensure Ulysses was published - she rejoiced nonetheless in seeing her friends rewarded with success that would last beyond their years.
See Joshua Kotin's Shakespeare and Company digital humanities project for a window into the Sylvia Beach archives at Princeton University. https://shakespeareandco.princeton.edu/