On November 19, 1919, Sylvia Beach opened a bookshop and lending library at 8 rue Dupuytren, a tiny street on the Left Bank in Paris. In 1921, she moved to a new location around the corner at 12 rue de l’Odéon, and there Shakespeare and Company became the epicenter of the Lost Generation.
Beach was inspired to open Shakespeare and Company after visiting La Maison des Amis des Livres, a French bookshop and lending library, run by Adrienne Monnier. Beach and Monnier quickly became friends, and then professional collaborators and lifelong partners. “My loves were Adrienne Monnier, James Joyce, and Shakespeare Company,” Beach later declared.
In 1922, Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses under the Shakespeare and Company imprint—a feat that would ensure the bookshop and lending library’s iconic status, as well as her own reputation as a patron saint of modernism.
Members of the lending library represent a who’s who of Anglophone modernism: Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Katherine Anne Porter, Archibald MacLeish, Bryher, and Richard Wright, among many others. Members also include well-known French writers: André Gide, Paul Valéry, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, Henri Michaux, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—to name just a few.
In 1936, Shakespeare and Company struggled to stay afloat during the Great Depression. Gide rallied a committee of writers to save the bookshop and lending library. He established the Friends of Shakespeare and Company, a special subscription that allowed subscribers to attend monthly readings. Gide, Valéry, and others gave readings. T.S. Eliot visited from London to give a reading, and Ernest Hemingway gave a reading with Stephen Spender. The readings raised sales, and Shakespeare and Company returned to profitability.
In 1941, during the Occupation of France, Beach was forced to close Shakespeare and Company. In a small act of defiance she refused to sell a German officer her last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. To prevent her stock from being confiscated, she hid it in her apartment overlooking the storefront. Once the United States entered the war later that year, she was detained as a foreign national, and ended up spending six months in a women’s internment camp at Vittel.
Beach spent the remainder of the war living illegally in the Foyer des Etudiantes (Student’s Hostel) at 93 Boulevard Saint Michel. It was around the corner from rue de l’Odéon and she would sneak over periodically to visit La Maison des Amis des Livres, which sold books published by Editions de Minuit, the publishing arm of the Resistance, under the table.
When the Allies liberated Paris in 1944, Hemingway came to rue de l’Odéon to personally “liberate” the bookshop and lending library—before going to “liberate” the bar at the Ritz. Shakespeare and Company never officially reopened, but in the years after the war Beach continued to greet expatriates and lend them books from her collection.
Sylvia Beach died in Paris in 1962. She was repatriated and buried in Princeton, where her father had lived and worked as minister of the First Presbyterian Church. In early 1964, Princeton University acquired the remaining contents of her apartment at 12 rue de l’Odéon, including several thousand books as well as papers and business records.
The legacy of Sylvia Beach’s bookstore has never faded. In 1951, another expatriate, George Whitman, opened his own bookstore, Le Mistral, at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. In 1964, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and in homage to his great predecessor, Whitman renamed it Shakespeare and Company. His daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, is currently the store’s owner and manager.
- Sylvia Beach. Shakespeare and Company. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
- Noel Riley Fitch. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. New York: Norton, 1985.
- Keri Walsh, ed. The Letters of Sylvia Beach. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.