The Little Bookshop That Could: Shakespeare & Co.

Sylvia Beach – the owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company – died on this day in 1962. Shakespeare and Company was nothing short of a phenomenon. A small bookshop on rue de l’Odéon that became the meeting-place, focal point and publishing house for some of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

In 1918, 31-year-old American, Sylvia Beach, walked into a bookshop on the rue de l’Odéon in Paris and met its owner, Adrienne Monnier. For the next 36 years, the two would be friends and lovers, and that day marked the beginning of an extraordinary story history in the history of literature. Sylvia soon began having ideas about setting up a bookshop of her own. It would prove to be a momentous decision. She called her bookshop Shakespeare and Company.

The post-WWI years in Europe were a hugely important time for English literature. Writers from both sides of the Atlantic – from America, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Des Passos, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound; from Europe, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Valery – were changing the face of English writing, ushering in a period that would be known as Modernism. Indeed, 1922 saw the publication of two texts that would become cornerstones of the Modernist movement – Ulysses and The Waste Land. The disillusionment of the Diaspora of American artists led them to be known as the “Lost Generation”. And one by one, each member of the “Lost Generation” turned up at Sylvia Beach’s door.

Of the major names of Modernism, the first to come to Shakespeare and Company was Gertrude Stein in March 1920. Within a couple of years, Stein would become the “mother figure” of the “Lost Generation”. Everyone – from Joyce to Hemingway – would gather in the apartment she shared with Alice B. Toklas, adorned with Picassos and Cézannes. In time, her relationship with Sylvia would sour; Stein regarded herself as the foremost voice of Modernism and regarded Joyce as a rival. After Sylvia published Ulysses, Stein never set foot in Shakespeare & Company again.

The next member of the “Lost Generation” to turn up at Shakespeare & Co. was the American poet, Ezra Pound. The presence of Pound – and later Joyce – in Paris contributed in no small way to many other young writers arriving there.

The next visitor to Shakespeare & Company would be the person who would change – not only Sylvia Beach’s life – but the face of English literature. At the time, James Joyce was living in Trieste teaching English. Pound – who had just recently met Joyce – encouraged him to move to Paris. Joyce arrived in July of 1920. A party was held to which the Joyce’s were invited, as was Adrienne who encouraged Sylvia to accompany her. Sylvia and Joyce hit it off immediately. Joyce loved the name of Sylvia’s bookshop and wrote down the address, telling her he would visit the following day.

In December 1921, an American journalist and his wife came into Shakespeare and Company and met Sylvia for the first time. The journalist – Ernest Hemingway – would become a great friend of Sylvia’s. After he became famous, many of Hemingway’s friends fell by the wayside for one reason or another. But he and Sylvia remained great friends for years afterwards and he had only good things to say about her.

While it may be overstating the case to say that – without Sylvia Beach – there would have been no Ulysses, it is certainly the case that James Joyce would have found publishing it much, much harder without her help. He had struggled for years to get Dubliners published, a book that was nowhere near as controversial as Ulysses. As with many of Joyce’s friendships, however, his relationship with Sylvia soured after he began to question why Ulysses wasn’t making more money. Sylvia – who up to that point had not only been his publisher, one of his financiers and oftentimes his skivvy – was understandably upset. She eventually rescinded all the rights of Ulysses to Joyce.

Shakespeare and Co. continued to operate after the outbreak of World War II. However, in 1941, the Germans closed the shop, reputedly because Sylvia wouldn’t sell a copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German officer. The shop remained closed for three years, but was finally “liberated” by Hemingway in 1944. Sylvia wrote:

“We asked [Hemingway] if he could do something about the Nazi snipers on the roof tops in our street … He got his company out of the jeeps and took them up to the roof. We heard firing for the last time in the rue de l’Odéon. Hemingway and his men came down again and rode off in their jeeps – ‘to liberate’ according to Hemingway, ‘the cellar at the Ritz’.”

Despite this, Sylvia never re-opened Shakespeare & Co. In 1956, she wrote a memoir of the years in “Shakespeare and Company”. Monnier – beset by illness – committed suicide in 1955. Sylvia remained in Paris until her death – on this day – in 1962.

(Image: Click on pic for credits)

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3 thoughts on “The Little Bookshop That Could: Shakespeare & Co.

  1. Great post Derek. I’ve visited the Shakespeare & Co bookshop both times I’ve been to Paris and it is phenomenal. Even today it has a ready-made bed at the back of the shop for any struggling writer who cannot afford accommodation. George Bernard Shaw was one of its occupants! I bought my copy of the 1922 edition of Ulysses, with all of its errors (approximately two thousand), here and cherish it. It is a real mark of Joyce’s terrible eyesight but tremendous vision 😉

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