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Sylvia Beach
April 9, 2007 10:20 PM   Subscribe

Shakespeare and Company, the first English/American bookshop and lending library in Paris, may be the most famous bookshop in history.
posted by serazin (20 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
After traveling in Italy and Spain, and serving during World War I with the Red Cross in Serbia, Sylvia Beach settled permanently in Paris and with the encouragement of her friend and lover, Adrienne Monnier, founded this literary center for American expatriates. As its proprietor, she first published James Joyce's controversial novel Ulysses, which had been banned elsewhere because it was considered obscene. "I thought it rash of him to entrust his Great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I…" (Joyce eventually moved to another publisher which left Beach financially stranded.) Shakespeare and Company closed its doors during the German occupation when a Nazi officer threatened to confiscate the entire stock unless Miss Beach sold him her personal - and last - copy of Finnegans Wake and it was Hemingway who, in 1944 at the front lines of the Allied forces, drove his jeep to 12, rue de l'Odeon and officially "liberated" Shakespeare and Company but the original store never reopened.

(I discovered Beach while reading the charming Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's tragicomic memoir.)

(And previously)
posted by serazin at 10:21 PM on April 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


Mmmmmh... wall of LINKS!!!
posted by slater at 10:36 PM on April 9, 2007


(thanks, mods)
posted by slater at 10:41 PM on April 9, 2007


Well worth a visit, although what you'll find there is very much pot luck. Oozes history, evidently.
posted by Wolof at 11:03 PM on April 9, 2007


(To Shakespeare and Company that is; I am uncertain as to Ms Beach's current whereabouts.)
posted by Wolof at 11:07 PM on April 9, 2007


Interesting post. Sylvia Beach was a brave, pioneering and innovative woman who lived at a very exciting time, at the center of the 1920's and 1930's literary world, in Paris. A great time for books and that was her business.

Mary Beach was Sylvia's cousin, also a brave, innovative and creative person. She was a neighbor of mine in London in 1971 at the time when Burroughs lived in London too. Through her and her friendship with my boyfriend I got to meet Burroughs and Ginsburg. Mary started her own publishing company, Beach Books and published translations of Burroughs and Ginsburg.

Sad that Sylvia Beach's beloved, Adrienne Monnier (also a renowned, pioneering woman bookseller), committed suicide. Apparently Sylvia Beach's papers are archived at Princeton. Bet they'd make some interesting reading.
posted by nickyskye at 11:08 PM on April 9, 2007



I washed ashore once at Shakespeare & Co. to pay my respects to the old man running the place at the time. A friend of mine said I had only to mention his name and the old man would happily take me in as a guest, kindly though mercurial creature that he was. It was dreadfully hot and his shop took me hours to find with a heavy load on my back and an enormous guitar, a ridiculous haul for someone who had meant to travel light. When I got to Shakespeare & Co., the wooden shutters flew open in the loft above, and the old man with furious streams of white hair stuck his head out with a deranged look in his eye, slammed the shutters shut and minutes later emerged from the bookshop yelling at some punks who had apparently overstayed their welcome and who had begun piling their shit outside. "Get out! Get out!" he yelled. Once he simmered down and started pacing about a bit I foolishly went up to him, introduced myself, and dropped the name of my friend, mentioning his suggestion that we would find here a place to stay. "No, don't know him." He told me to get lost, looked at my giant backpack and guitar, and said, "Look at all this stuff, you kids and your damn stuff," then stormed back in. A sign written in his tortured scrawl and signed by him was taped up in the window. It said something about feeling like an alien in this world until he had read about a certain saintly prince by the name of Myshkin, in Dostoevsky's Idiot, and only then had he reconciled himself to his own timid, sensitive nature. A few months later he was dead.
posted by bukharin at 11:29 PM on April 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Shakespeare & Co. also features in Richard Linklater's Before Sunset.
posted by muckster at 12:07 AM on April 10, 2007


All of the (accidental?) question marks? made me feel like the whole site? was being read to me by a valley girl?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:15 AM on April 10, 2007


I didn't consider my post-collegiate crawl of Europe ("International Garbageman Tour '89") complete until I had shoplifted Sartre from Shakespeare & Co. Truly a rite of passage.

(Seconding the recommendation for Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, BTW. It's nice to see Alison enjoy the success she's been earning for so very long.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:17 AM on April 10, 2007


Beach's memoir is good, and so it Monnier's (and it's only 63 cents at Amazon). I do think that it's useful to think of them together, as a team. Of course Beach gets more press, being American and publishing ex-pats, but it's quite clear that she could not have done what she did without Monnier's love and support.

Nice post.
posted by OmieWise at 5:42 AM on April 10, 2007


I used to frequent the Shakespeare & Company in Berkeley and had no idea of its history. Unfortunately I stopped visiting -- Telegraph avenue has gone downhill. Thanks for the post.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 8:12 AM on April 10, 2007


the Paris bookshop that now has the Shakespeare & Co's name has no relation whatsoever to Sylvia Beach's one. but it's always nice to drop by. and Mr. Whitman may be cranky but he's not dead, not that I know of at least.
posted by matteo at 9:01 AM on April 10, 2007


I have an embarrassing memory of seeing Allen Ginsberg read there when I was a poor student. He made a face when I produced a copy of one of his old books to sign rather than buying the new book.
posted by grubby at 10:47 AM on April 10, 2007


His reading was excellent, by the way. I remember a dramatic rendition of "whom bomb."
posted by grubby at 10:48 AM on April 10, 2007


pay my respects to the old man running the place at the time

Ah -- the eccentric George Whitman who "allows young travellers to stay in the residential quarters of his rue de la Bucherie premises, in exchange for two hours' work in the bookshop each day."

The documentary "Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man" is recommended viewing:
"George, 92, still runs his 'den of anarchists disguised as a bookstore,' offering free, dirty beds to poor literati, cutting his hair with a candle and gluing the carpet with pancake batter. More than 40,000 poets, travelers and political activists have stayed at Shakespeare and Company, writing or stealing books, throwing parties and making soup or love while living with George's generosity and fits of anger. Illustrious guests include Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Jacques Prévert, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Welcome to the makeshift utopia of the last member of the Beat Generation."
52-minute documentary online here.
posted by ericb at 11:11 AM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


the Paris bookshop that now has the Shakespeare & Co's name has no relation whatsoever to Sylvia Beach's one. but it's always nice to drop by. and Mr. Whitman may be cranky but he's not dead, not that I know of at least.

BTW -- George Whitman named his daughter, born in 1981, after his Shakespeare & Co. predecessor; Sylvia Beach Whitman took over the running of the shop in 2003 at age 22.

Interview with George and daughter, Sylvia.
posted by ericb at 11:20 AM on April 10, 2007


The primary single achievement of Beach and her shop was the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, 2 February 1922. Beach agreed to publish it in France, where the typesetters could not read English, after it was declared obscene in the United States.

I had always thought that Ulysses was published in France because the French are more worldly and tolerant of sexual content. It never occurred to me that the book was published first in France because the typesetters couldn't read English!
posted by jayder at 3:30 PM on April 10, 2007


I'm sure some of the typesetters couldn't read english, but I doubt that was the main reason. There's a letter from Joyce which goes into some detail about the books publication in the relatively-recent Modern Library edition's preface.
posted by sixacross at 10:57 PM on April 10, 2007



You're sure he's not dead? I was told he was dead.
posted by bukharin at 9:25 PM on April 13, 2007


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