Two Women, a Bookstore, and a Dream.
I feel that bookstores have (and will continue to be) important places, beyond their role in just being able to be a place where one can go to buy books. They can be an important place of social discussion and change, but even past all that, they are a place to meet other people, and talk. And no, I’m not saying that bookstores are the only places that such interactions take place. Interactions like this can happen almost anywhere, from the sidewalk (walking your dog) to the supermarket, to the gas station at the corner of Brook and Pine. What I am trying to say here is that while such interactions aren’t strictly speaking unique to the bookstore, the kinds of people the store draws to it are what make for a unique gather place.
In order to better understand the store Shakespeare and Company I feel that it is essential to know a little about the people who owned, operated, and helped build the store up, both physically and reputation-ally. Though she didn’t create the store Shakespeare and Company herself, Adreinne Monnier could be called its co-founder, alongside Sylvia Beach. But that’s getting ahead of ymself. First we have to understand how Monnier was in such a position in the first place.
In 1915, Adrienne Monnier was the first woman in Paris to open up her own bookstore (called La Maison des Amis des Livres). At the time, it wasn’t unusual for a wife to work alongside her husband, or for a widow to continue the work of their husband if they owned the store, but Monnier was an anomaly to the Parisians because she started the bookstore all on her own, without the help of a husband or other male figure. But despite its unusual starting point the store managed quite well during the first World War, and even after its end in 1918. During this time the shop Monnier opened became both a store as well as a lending library, though due to the war, it managed to scrape by, as most people at the time were too busy either helping with the war effort, currently involved in the fighting of the war, or trying to rebuild during it, though Monnier herself didn’t actively partake in the support or rebuilding efforts of the war.
Though Sylvia Beach’s participation in the first world war was strictly agricultural (she helped grow food for the war in Touraine) she found herself moving to Paris after the war’s conclusion. earlier in her life, she’d lived in France with the rest of her family, but the time they’d spent in the country was short before they moved back stateside. Beach met Monnier when she found Monnier’s bookstore noted in a French news journal and decided to seek out the small store. By most accounts this first interaction went well, and the two took to each others company. But it was more than that. By all accounts the two were drawn towards one another as more than just two people who loved books. The two became good friends, and eventually lovers. The two worked together, to try and shape what the reading landscape for the city (or at the very least their arrondissement would look like. In 1919, with the encouragement of Monnier, Beach made her own bookstore called Shakespeare and Company, in the 6th arrondissement on 8 rue Dupuytren, specializing the store in modern literature, and catering to a growing english-speaking portion of the Parisian population.
Through Monnier, many well known writers, artists, and thinkers found their way to Shakespeare and Company. Notably among them were TS Elliot, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway. Interestingly enough, Hemingway got to know Monnier and Beach personally, going so far as to help them fix and maintain their bookstores when they fell out of shape. During this time, Shakespeare and Company served as a gathering spot for many members of what would later be called the Lost Generation of writers (Hemingway among them), as the store served as a place where those who had served as soldiers in the war, or even those who had been effected by it could meet, discuss, and write trying to make sense of what had happened and their place in the world.
The store also became a lending library both for the normal Parisians, and for that growing english speaking demographic. Now where this increasingly english-speaking (or even bi-lingual) section of the population came from doesn’t have any direct cause, there was certainly an increased influence in the city from America’s involvement in the first World War, and possibly other English speakers (most likely American) moving to the city to live and partake in the cultural exchange. That’s because the 6th arrondissement (along with the 7th) have been traditionally seen as housing the wealthier inhabitants of the city of Paris. Though, during the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, that population of wealthy elite went down in favor of more of a bohemian/intellectual population, who took advantage of the cheaper housing of the time.
But the scene was not only brought by the growing bohemian population. Writers seeking freedom from censorship migrated into the city, and Monnier and Beach were at the epicenter of this influx of writers, their stores serving (often) as a place for writers and artists new to the city to take a night and rest, and also to make connections with others, as well as finding work and a place to live. They found Sylvia’s bookstore refreshingly radical in its overall book stock and often recommended it to their colleagues who had yet to make the journey to France, or were preparing for such a journey. And when they’d arrive Beach would greet them into her shop with open arms, a cup of tea, and often a good place to sit down and read a book, besides just being a respite from the hardships of their travels.
The original store was also the sight of a smuggling operation, though nothing on the scale or not-exactly-illegal-ness of drugs or contraband. Instead, Sylvia Beached helped to ship and smuggle copies of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses into the United states, England, Ireland, and other countries, where the book had initially been banned due to its, at the time, pornographic content. In the process she risked both some of her finances and her own reputation, but she helped Joyce because she believed the book should be read. Though effort to get Joyce’s book into the hands of other readers worked out not biting Beach in the ass, Joyce never actually thanked her for her efforts, both financial and emotional.
Sylvia Beach continued to run Shakespeare and Company as the store managed to eek out an existence into the 1930s, when most Americans left the country due to fluctuating exchange rates. Sylvia kept the store open and available for the public as well as to all the writers and artists who used it as a central hub of communication as well as a place to gather and physically meet. Loyal friends going so far as to help keep the store open by taking yearly subscriptions during extremely lean years. In 1937, Sylvia was awarded a Knight of the Legion of Honor, a gesture which she took great joy in. She is said to have worn the ribbon frequently even during the second world war. In 1939 the German army occupied Paris and Sylvia chose to remain in the city, as it was her home than. Beach by that time had a reputation for rebelling against censorship, and it didn’t take long for the German occupational forces to start putting pressure on her, to divulge information about Jews she was suspect of hiding, and other information. In 1941 Beach was forced to close the shop down after refusing to sell her last copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses to a German officer. Though the direct cause of the closing of the store was never written down, I suspect it was due to increased costs to live in the city alongside maintaining a bookstore. Sylvia with the help of friends, moved the entirety of the stock to the upper levels of the store, boarding up the windows before locking the doors and leaving to live with Monnier. The store remained closed until in 1944, Hemingway symbolically “liberated” the store from German occupational forces. But it remained closed, and never reopened.
Despite the fact the Sylvia never reopened the original store I think it is very important to remember how the store acted as a “mecca” for writers and artists from the 1920’s and into the 30’s, as a place where they could work and distribute their work without as much censorship as they might in their own home cultures/societies. As having a place where people could talk adamantly about what they saw or tell a story as they best saw fit is not only a service, but possibly a requirement of an establishment trying to bring a modern outlook to the landscape of literature.
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Picture of Monneir:
Picture of Beach:
Photo of 1960s location of Shakespeare and Company orignal location:
Info regarding Sylvia Beach’s Award:
“Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Paris in the Twenties and Thirties” by Noel Riley Fitch. Page 386.
Info regarding Adrienne Monnier:
Info regarding Beach’s actives prior to opening Shakespeare and Company: