Remembering a Woman and Her Bookstore
Ernest Hemingway described Miss Beach in his book A Moveable Feast and wrote "She had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal's and as gay as a young girl's, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears..." Hemingway also wrote that Miss Beach "was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me."
In the year 1917, Sylvia Beach was a student in Paris studying contemporary French literature. One day, she read an advertisement for work in a bookshop called "La Maison des Amis des Livres" and soon became friends, (and eventually lovers), with the shop owner: a Miss Adrienne Monnier. Miss Monnier had a lot of business sense which rubbed off onto Miss Beach who opened her first bookshop on November 19, 1919 at 8 rue Dupuytren. This was the first time "Shakespeare and Company" came into existence. The shop was filled with books from the floor to the ceiling. It was also filled with a certain...magic. The shop appealed to both French and American readers as well as writers even though the shop was an English language bookstore and lending library. The shop was also used to house writers who were down on their luck. Miss Beach prepared beds and meals for them. Two years later, Miss Beach was able to move her shop to 12 Rue de L'Odéon, right across from Miss Monnier's shop.
Many writers that we know of today, went to "Shakespeare and Company". Hemingway was one and James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford and various others. Miss Beach had a great influence . In fact, after hearing about the trouble Joyce was going though in order to get his book printed and into the hands of the public, Miss Beach offered to do it for him. She worked hard to get Joyce's book, Ulysses, printed even though the shop did not have enough capital. Miss Beach lent Joyce money to support his family. "Shakespeare and Company" was on the brink of bankruptcy, but success soon followed. People rushed to buy copies of Ulysses partly because it was a good book and because it was banned in Englad and the United States.
Publishers went into Miss Beach's shop and she pointed them in the direction of truly good writers and vice versa. "Shakespeare and Company" became well known, but when the Germans invaded France, a high-ranking German officer stepped into Miss Beach's shop and demanded a copy of Joyce's Finnigan's Wake. She refused because it was her last copy. As a result, the officer decreed that all the books were to be confiscated and the store closed. Miss Beach, with the help of friends, moved everything from the shop to an apartment and painted over the "Shakespeare and Company" sign. It had been there for about twenty years giving hope to readers and writers and then...it was gone forever.
The people of the world should be thankful to Miss Beach. She is the reason so many good writers are known today. She is the reason we, today, have Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald and more on our shelves. We should truly be thankful for her.
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See my other blog post on the movie Midnight in Paris