“Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money.” Sylvia Beach, bygone expat

“Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money.” So read the telegram that Sylvia Beach, founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, sent to her mother.

Such were the humble beginnings of a bookstore that is now known the world over. It is coveted by book fiends who flock to the store on Paris’ Left Bank, to explore its dusty shelves and climb its rickety staircase.

Sylvia inspired by French bookstore

Having first moved to Paris as daughter of a clergyman, Sylvia Beach remained enamoured by the French capital. She was drawn back to study contemporary French literature. It was during this time that she made the acquaintance of Adrienne Monnier, the owner of a French bookstore on rue de l’Odéon in the sixth arrondissement.

Inspired by Adrienne’s success in Paris, Sylvia dreamed of opening a branch of the store in New York to introduce French writing to American readers. But the rent was too high in New York and Sylvia’s dream seemed dashed. Still drawn by that irresistible Parisian charm, Sylvia revised her plan and set her sights upon opening, not a French bookstore in New York, but an American one in Paris.

Tutored by the already accomplished Monnier, Sylvia set out to find an appropriate location for her new venture. Before long, her mother had received that now famous telegram, asking for funds to pay the rent at a humble storefront at 8 rue Dupuytren.

An American bookstore in Paris

The store opened on the 17th of November, 1919. An instant success, it soon outgrew its birthplace and moved on to the much larger store at 2 rue de l’Odéon in 1922.

Shakespeare and Company stocked all manner of books, and functioned as a bookstore and library, where clients could borrow or buy the many titles found upon its shelves.

Not content with being just a bookstore owner, Sylvia turned her hand to publishing, being the first to publish James Joyce’s controversial ‘Ulysses’. As anticipated, ‘Ulysses’ made Shakespeare and Company famous, and it soon became the favourite haunt of some of the greatest bibliophiles of the time; of all time.

These included Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, and of course James Joyce who nicknamed the store Stratford-on-Odéon’.

Sadly, when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, the store closed its doors and never opened them again.

New generation of Shakespeare and Co. in the French capital

In 1951, a fellow American, George Whitman, opened another English language bookstore on the Left Bank, naming it ‘Le Mistral’ after the 16th-century monastery on which the site was located. The store was re-named to honor Sylvia’s store after her death in 1964, and became the Shakespeare and Company that we know and love today, at 37 rue de la Bûcherie.

The store in the heart of Saint-Michel was the meeting place for many writers of the Beat generation, such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

Shakespeare and Company still attracts literary lovers and writers who can apply to stay above the celebrated bookstore, paying for their board with a little light dusting. As well as selling books, Shakespeare and Co. holds many events including reading nights and writers groups. One can barely resist a chance to play the piano on the top floor.

You only have to spend a moment amongst the store’s hallowed bookshelves to realize that Sylvia’s spirit – the one that nurtured and encouraged the love and art of written word – is still very much a part of the dear bookstore.

Have you bought a book from Shakespeare and Co.?

1. ‘Ex-Pat Paris as It Sizzled for One Literary Lioness’, by Dwight Garner, The New York Times.
2. ‘Shakespeare & Company: A Bookshop of My Own’ by Sylvia Beach.
3. Sylvia Beach, Wikipedia.
Image credits:
1. Sylvia Beach, via Wikipedia.
2. ‘Be not inhospitable…’, by Dawn Danby via Flickr.
Sylvia Beach plaque, by Monceau via Flickr.
Shakespeare and Co., by drewleavy via Flickr.

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Zoë Bradley

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