26 February 2013

Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, Paris: 1919-41

Sylvia Beach (1887–1962) was born in the USA. Then in 1901, the family moved to France when her father became a minister of the American Church in Paris and a director in an American educational institute. Young Sylvie stayed in Paris until 1905, then lived for some time in the USA, then some years in Spain. Once World War One broke out in 1914, Beach made her permanent home in Paris where she studied French literature.

There was a small bookshop in rue de l'Odéon that caught Beach’s attention and it became the centre of her intellectual and social life. Run by Adrienne Monnier, this Left Bank bookshop called Maison des Amis des Livres was something of a meeting place for established French writers and an inspiration for younger, would-be French writers.

Amazingly Monnier helped Beach open another such bookshop in 1919, even though it would have been compet­it­ion for her own. Paris was of course delighted that the war had ended, but there was still a great deal of pain and loss in November 1919.

Shakespeare and Company bookshop, now
Rue de la Bûcherie, Paris

The brand new Shakespeare and Company Bookshop and library quickly became popular with French writers and readers, but also with English writers and readers. So less than two years later, in 1921, Shake­sp­eare and Company moved to bigger premises in 12 rue de l'Odéon, al­most opposite Monnier’s bookshop. It ran first as kind of lending library, and almost immediately the many local and expatriate writers were borrowing books and giving her their own new writings in exchange.

Beach’s timing was perfect since a literary revolution was emerging in 1920s Paris. Writers like James Joyce (1882-1941), DH Lawrence (1885-1930), TS Eliot (1888-1965), Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972) were no longer teenagers and had been writing even before the War. But these men became the Lost Generation, artists who rebelled against the useless carnage that had been the Great War. They had no interest in defending the world and its absurd pre-war values.

The Lost Generation came from different countries and wrote in diff­erent languages, but they all needed a place to call home, especially the expatriates. So Sylvia Beach went out of her way to extend them food, drink, books, conversation, warmth and comfortable seats. It is said that these artists and writers, mainly men and mainly single, loved to spend time in her airy Left Bank “home”. Readers never knew if they would bump into James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas or even D.H Lawrence in the Shakespeare and Co Bookshop.

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce, c1920
Photo credit: Princeton University Library

This reminds me very much of the salon that Gertrude Stein ran for her local and expatriate artists in the same time period. Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein opened a home, salon and painting studio at 27 Rue de Fleurus on the left bank. They provided support, food and patronage to established and up-and-coming artists, welcoming Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, André Derain, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apol­lin­aire, Marie Laurencin, Henri Rousseau, Chaim Soutine, Ernest Hemingway and many others.

Of all the writers Beach helped, she was most supportive of Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941) who spent nearly 20 years in Paris, the longest and most productive stretch of his life in exile from Ireland. At the urging of Ezra Pound, Joyce arrived in July 1920 with the goal of finishing his very controversial work, Ulysses.

Sylvia Beach was preparing to publish Ulysses at Shakespeare and Co, so she sought subscriptions from potential readers, and received among the replies a clear refusal from George Bernard Shaw. Shaw had started to read Joyce’s book, but hated it. In his response to Beach, Shaw desc­r­ib­ed Ulysses as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but . . . a truthful one”. On the other hand, the writer Ezra Pound supported his friend Joyce and attacked George Bernard Shaw. The novel was finally published at Shakespeare and Co bookstore in 1922.

The Depression of 1929 hit Paris very badly and worse still, the late 1930s was a time to prepare for the next war. Expatriate writers and art­ists went back to their own countries. The end of Beach’s involve­ment, although not of the bookshop itself, came during World War Two. Beach was interned, her books were safely hidden and her Company closed in 1941. After the war, she continued living in her Paris home. Was that the end of the literary circle that gathered in Shakespeare and Co.?

Not quite. Another American, George Whitman, arrived in Paris after the German soldiers went home and founded a bookshop in 1951. From the beginning of his career there, he decided to allow travellers, writers and artists to doss down, in exchange for helping to clean the ship, build the shelves and sell the books. Whitman clearly modelled his shop after Sylvia Beach's, only in the 1950s it wasn't the multi-nation Lost Generation who loved the shop. Instead it was the American Beat Generation, especially Allen Ginsberg, William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.

Beach died in 1962 and left Whitman both her book collection and the rights to the name Shakespeare and Company. Whitman grabbed both.

You might like to read the book Shakespeare and Company which was written by Sylvia Beach herself, with an introduction by James Laughlin (1991).


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I would like to get hold of that book by Sylvia Beach. It seems she had an extraordinary mix of qualities--hospitality, intellectual/literary appreciation, and the ability to understand that often brilliant people need a special kind of support or nurturing.

There was a time when book shop owners were were a breed apart, especially in the pre-internet days. I just read one of the books of reminiscences of Dr. Rosenbach, but Ms. Beach was in a class by herself. Have you heard of a possible relationship to composer Amy Beach?
--Road to Parnassus

Student of history said...

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were not really ex-pats since they had a proper home to go to in Paris. So I bet there was competition between Stein and Sylvia Beach for the boys

Hels said...


Yes indeed. Sylvia Beach certainly was a breed apart. She _happened_ to be in Paris at the right time for a very literary, very intellectual generation, but to her credit she maximised their success, and hers.

Re Amy Beach (nee Cheney). No, I can find no connection.

Hels said...


now there is an interesting thought. Beach’s regulars included James Joyce, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald.

Stein’s salon favourites included James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and all the modern artists like Pablo Picasso.

Both Stein and Beach were gay, so the boys had a special relationship with the mentors.

Leon and Sue Sims said...

On a previous visit 2009 we visited S&Co for the second time. We were served by Whitman's daughter, Sylvia. I handed her the money for the book of S&Co by Sylvia Beach. The following night we ate at the restaurant next door. Whitman must have had a great regard for Sylvia Beach to have named his daughter after Beach.

Hels said...

Leon and Sue

I am envious of you two. I came across this story accidentally 2-3 years ago, when preparing notes on Gertrude Stein's salon. Stein and Hemingway were still famous, I thought; Beach probably was not.

How amazing that you knew enough about Beach and then Whitman to buy the book, meet the daughter and visit the next door restaurant.

Hels said...

I had a lot of trouble finding about Beach's relationships with writers, except for the Biggies: James Joyce, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald.

Yet today's Review in The Australian newspaper (14/4/13) is full of Sylvia Beach trying hard to support and publicise the French version of Australian author's, Dal Stivens, first book - The Tramp And Other Stories.

Timing is everything.