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
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).