Profiles of Courage

Sylvia Beach: The Literary Goddess of 1920s Paris

Syvlie Beach at 8, rue Dupuytren, Shakespeare and Company, 1920


You know the infamous Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris?

One of my favorite spots in Paris.

She was perhaps best known for her Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. Born in Baltimore, Md. in 1887, she traveled to Paris with her father during her teenage years when her father worked for the American Church in Paris for two years. She returned to the city of lights to volunteer during World War I and spend the majority of her life there.

In 1919, Sylvia Beach founded a bookstore that would become the hot spot for expats in Paris: the first Shakespeare and Company. Located in Paris at 12 rue de l’Odéon, the shop was half bookstore and half lending library.

It attracted the great expat writers of the time—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound—including some of the century’s most compelling female voices: Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner, Kay Boyle, and Mina Loy.

With the help of $3,000 from her mother, Beach paid six month’s rent and transformed the bleak premises into a warm and welcoming environment replete with antique furniture from flea markets, sack cloth covered walls and a profusion of paintings and drawings. A wood burning stove heated the shop and the small kitchenette beyond. There was no bathroom. The shop was not the most profitable venture: it only made one hundred dollars in profit in 1921. What was important to Sylvia was the literary community her shop had created.


Sylvia Beach
Sylvia Beach











She had a long love story with Adrienne Monnier, a French writer who opened her own bookstore in Paris, La Maison des Amies des Livres, in 1915. They fell in love in 1918 when Sylvia visiter Adrienne’s shop and asked for advice on French bureaucracy and business affairs. They remained together until Adrienne’s death in 1955.


Sylvia and Adrienne


Beach’s bookstore was open until 1941, when the Germans occupied Paris. One day that December, a Nazi officer entered her store and demanded Beach’s last copy of Finnegans Wake. Beach declined to sell him the book. The officer said he would return in the afternoon to confiscate all of Beach’s goods and to close her bookstore. After he left, Beach immediately moved all the shop’s books and belongings to an upstairs apartment. In the end, she would spend six months in an internment camp in Vittel.

She never re-opened the bookshop although she retained the premises above which contained her fourth floor apartment.

Released from the pressures of Shakespeare and Company, Beach did not slow down but took up charitable work, attended lectures and returned to writing and translating, always with the support and love of Monnier.

George Whitman, a friend of Sylvia Beach, who opened his own bookshop in 1951, La Mistral, in Rue de la Bucherie, renamed it Shakespeare and Company in her honor (1964). When Whitman’s only child was born in 1981, he named her Sylvia Beach Whitman. Sylvia Beach Whitman still runs Shakespeare and Company, overlooking Notre Dame cathedral, six years after her father passed away.


James Joyce & Sylvia Beach

Onward women!

En avant les femmes!

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