Today we celebrate the 130th birthday of the
patron saint of independent bookstores, Sylvia Beach.
Sylvia’s bibliophile self poses with a book in her bookstore Shakespeare & Company. (x)
Sylvia was an integral figure in the Lost Generation literary
scene; she was a go-to translator, financier, and confidant for many of the
mythical literary names to come out of Paris in the 1920s. Her friends included
Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and many more.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about Sylvia in his infamous memoir A Moveable Feast,
where he says, “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” However, before she
was the charming book goddess that we know her as today, Sylvia Beach was Nancy
Woodridge Beach and she was a simple preacher’s daughter. Born in Baltimore on this day in 1887, Sylvia’s family built their whole life around the church.
Her father was a Presbyterian minister and his job took the family to Europe
and back again for many years. Throughout her youth, Sylvia lived in Paris for three
years, Spain for two, and then came back to the States to live in Brighton, New
Jersey. She eventually left home during World War I to join the Red Cross. Once
her service was up, she moved back to Paris and decided to pursue her true
passion and study French literature.
Sylvia photographed with her partner Adrienne Monnier. (x)
While studying in France, Sylvia met a young bookstore owner
named Adrienne Monnier. The two fell in love and the deal was sealed – Sylvia would
stay in Paris for good. In 1919, Adrienne helped Sylvia open her own bookstore,
the now famous Shakespeare & Company. The store quickly became a hub for Paris’s Bohemia community, in part due to Sylvia’s own quirky personality and passion for literature;
aware of the plight of the starving artist, Sylvia rented out just as many
books as she sold and she referred to her customers as her beloved “bunnies.” Shakespeare
& Company received its first bit of fame after Sylvia singlehandedly
published her friend James Joyce’s masterwork, Ulysses, but even the money that resulted in Ulysses’s success wasn’t
enough to save the store from the Great Depression. Sylvia once wrote to her
sister, “A bookshop is mostly tiresome details all day long and you have to
have a passion for it, to grub and grub in it. I have always
loved books and their authors, and for the sake of them swallowed the rest of
it, but you can’t expect everyone to do the same.”
Shakespeare & Company as it stands today in 5th arrondissement on the Left Bank river. (x)
After suffering years of financial troubles, Shakespeare and
Company was forced to close in 1941. Later on in life, Sylvia wrote a memoir of
her bookstore years, aptly titled Shakespeare
and Company. Her life partner Adrienne Monnier tragically committed suicide
in 1956, but Sylvia would continue to live and work in the literary work until
her own death in 1962. In 1951, an American named George Whitman re-opened
Shakespeare & Company in a new location, where it still stands today!