Happy birthday, Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare & Company created a place for writers at a time when talented – though often needy literary artists came together in Paris searching for support, encouragement, and new opportunities.
Shakespeare and Company – on the Left Bank
Sylvia Beach – born in Baltimore, Maryland on this day (March 14th) in 1887 – founded Shakespeare and Company in 1919. It was an English-language bookstore in Paris in 1919 on the Left Bank (southern bank of the River Seine) – an area known to be frequented by artists and literary people. She created a lending library, bookstore and a haven for hungry readers and ambitious writers. During its 22 years in business, Sylvia hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and many other brilliant writers – mostly American, British or French. She was their confidant, their encourager – even lending money when some of them were in need. Many believe that the synergy created by these literary giants at Shakespeare and Company created something greater than the sum of all of their parts.
Ernest Hemingway said of Beach in his work A Movable Feast, “She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one I knew was ever nicer to me.” She had assisted so many – most notably, James Joyce who couldn’t get a commercial publisher to publish his controversial (now classic) work, Ulysses. Beach published the book and is celebrated today for the courage and the expense that it took to do that at a time when few women had any influence in the Paris publishing world or business community.
Bookstore Closes in 1941
Sylvia Beach quickly closed the bookstore during the Nazi Occupation of Paris after she had a run-in with a Nazi military officer to whom she refused to sell a book. That night she emptied her bookstore and was able to hide her books in a vacant apartment, but was later captured and sent to an internment camp where she was held for six months. Once released, she returned to Paris and her books but never reopened the bookshop. She died in 1964 in her Paris apartment but was returned to America for burial in Princeton, NJ.
In 1951, an American ex-patriot named George Whitman opened an English-language bookstore in an old monastery on the Left Bank facing the River Seine – just a 9-minute walk from Sylvia Beach’s former bookstore location. Whitman embraced the same philosophy as Beach – a warm welcome, a love of writers and support of the Paris literary arts. His bookstore grew in similar popularity with American, British and French writers. On the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare and 18 months after the death of Sylvia Beach, Whitman renamed his bookstore Shakespeare and Company honoring Beach’s memory.
New Store Opens in 1951
George Whitman died in 2011, but his store on the Left Bank remains, and it is now run by his daughter Sylvia. There’s a coffee shop next door where a traveler can grab a cuppa and a pastry and sip and nibble al fresco in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral. Or one can sit and read or think or remember – Paris scenes like this ignite the imagination. We might imagine the artists who have been so inspired both here and at the former Shakespeare and Company.
So today I salute Sylvia Beach and her contributions to the writing world – her legacy of welcoming readers and writers – lovers of literature; of publishing writers she believed in, offering them constant encouragement and kindness and opening doors to new opportunities.
When writers walked into Shakespeare and Company, the foundation for success and support for their writing journey was there. They needed only to look for the opportunity to move quickly toward their goals.
Sylvia Beach created one of those rare and extraordinary examples of when preparation meets opportunity and exponential results grow from that union.