Sylvia Beach, the bookseller and publisher who founded the English language bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris, was born in Baltimore, Maryland on March 14, 1887.
Shakespeare and Company became an important meeting place for expatriate American and British writers in Paris between 1919 and 1941, when the store was closed under the Nazi occupation of France. The store was also important for promoting English books among Paris’s bilingual intellectual elite.
Beach’s father was a Presbyterian clergyman who was sent with his family to Paris for three years during Beach’s teenage years.
Beach moved back to Europe when she was 20 years old and studied in Spain and Italy and worked for the Red Cross in Serbia during the First World War. In 1918 she settled in Paris to study modern French literature and work as a translator.
That same year she met Adrienne Monnier, the owner of La Maison des Amis des Livres, a bookstore on the Left Bank popular with French intellectuals. Beach and Monnier soon became lovers and lived together for 36 years, until Monnier’s death in 1955.
With a gift of $3,000 from her mother and help from Monnier Beach opened an English language bookstore and literary salon the following year, naming it Shakespeare and Company. The premises soon became too small for the readings and gatherings that Beach hosted and the shop was relocated across the street from Monnier’s store.
Beach’s and Monnier’s bookstores worked in tandem to introduce French literary poets and novelists to contemporary English language writers and vice versa.
During the interwar years the exchange rate on the French franc was very favourable for Americans and there was a large influx of “Americans in Paris,” writers and artists who moved to the city to live and work cheaply. Shakespeare and Company became the common meeting ground for them as well as for British and Irish writers living in Paris.
Beach helped many struggling writers, including Ernest Hemingway, whose first book she helped get published. She is most closely associated with James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses Beach published herself when it was banned as obscene in Britain and America.
Joyce’s cavalier treatment of Beach over their 10 year association was a sore spot for Monnier who considered that Joyce thought of Beach more as a servant than a patron. When the ban was eventually overturned Joyce sold the rights to Ulysses to Random House for $45,000 and never compensated Beach for her financial losses on the book.
André Gide saved Beach from bankruptcy in 1936 by organizing a subscription service to attend the readings at her store.
During the German occupation of France in the Second World War Shakespeare and Company was forcibly closed and Beach was interred for six months. She decided not to re-open the store after the war, dedicating herself to writing, translation and charity work.
Her friend and fellow American, George Whitman, opened an English language bookstore in Paris in 1951 with Beach’s help.
In 1964 he renamed the shop Shakespeare and Company and it is owned and run today by his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, who was named in Beach’s honour.
Beach died in 1962 at the age of 75.