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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some birthday cake for an American bookseller in Paris.
** Linger over the magic of finding a good book far from home.
** Savor a last ½ cup admiring the quiet courage of a determined woman.
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Please send money.
– Sylvia Beach1
telegram to her mother, 1919
All the young writers used to
practically live in my bookshop—
I could hardly get any work done….
One of the newspaper writers
called me “The Mother Hen of the 20s“
…They seemed to come to me about everything.
– Sylvia Beach
in a 1962 interview2
in her Shakespeare and Company bookshop, Paris
(archive photo: Princeton University Library)
Slice of Cake:
– Should we go home by Silver Beach’s book store?
– Sure. Do you like her?
– She is always very nice to me.
– Me too.
– She has a beautiful name. Silver Beach.
– a conversation between a father & young son
from “The Education of Mr Bumby”
in A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
Though she was born in Baltimore, Maryland,
Sylvia (not ‘Silver’) Beach spent all of her teen years in Paris.
Her father was the director of the American student center there.
When she was 19,
she and her family returned to the U.S., where her father became
minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, New Jersey.
She liked to say that her father was the 9th consecutive Presbyterian minister
to be the head of the Beach family—reaching back into the 17th century.3
Sylvia didn’t attend college
but she traveled widely as a young adult:
living for a while in Spain, working as a volunteer agricultural laborer in
France during World War One, and then as a Red Cross volunteer in Serbia.7
In amidst war, she would joke about her fears.
In a letter home from Belgrade, she said:
the spring-like day was ruined by the “bomby” air. 4
In 1917, Sylvia was walking through Paris’ Left Bank
when she stopped into a bookshop called La Maison des Amis des Livres,
(which roughly translates as Friends of Books House).
The proprietor was Adrienne Monnier,
one of the first French women to open her own bookstore.4
Sylvia Beach fell in love.
Soon Adrienne encouraged and mentored Sylvia in
the opening of her own English-language bookstore—
with financial help from her mother back in New Jersey—
just down the street from Adrienne’s French-language shop.
Sylvia Beach opened her new bookstore in 1919,
and named it Shakespeare and Company.
She lived in an apartment above her shop
with Adrienne, and a parrot she named Guappo.3
My loves were Adrienne Monnier and
James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company.
– Sylvia Beach4
Sylvia Beach, middle,
with James Joyce and Adrienne Monnier, 1938
photo by Gisèle Freund
Shakespeare and Company became much more than a bookstore.
I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop
and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library.
She told me I could pay the deposit any time…
and she made me out a card and said
I could take as many books as I wished…
– Ernest Hemingway
It was a lending library for book lovers who couldn’t afford to buy,
a postal address for nomadic patrons with no steady home of their own.
And Sylvia would sometimes lend money to struggling artists, a service
Ernest Hemingway was especially grateful for.
There was no reason for her to trust me.
She did not know me and the address I had given her
…could not have been a poorer one.
But she was delightful and
charming and welcoming and behind her,
as high as the wall and stretching out into the back room…
were the shelves and shelves of the richness of the library.
– Ernest Hemingway
It was a gathering place for writers like Samuel Beckett,
James Joyce, Ernest Heming way, Thornton Wilder, and F Scott Fitzgerald.2
Beach introduced writers to each other—and to publishers.5
Sylvia Beach called the patrons of her lending library bunnies.
This was her play on the French word for subscriber,
which is abonné.7
Sylvia Beach also helped usher in modern literature:
she published her friend James Joyce’s Ulysses
in 1922 when no one else dared.
– Sylvia Whitman5
A year after opening her shop,
Sylvia Beach met James Joyce at a party.
Later Joyce came into Shakespeare and Company to show her an article
detailing a U.S. court ruling, which identified Ulysess as obscenity,10
and blocked it from being published.
He said: You see this now—
It is being completely suppressed.
…My book will never come out.
So he sat there with his head in his hands and
I said to him: Would you like me to publish Ulysses?
And he said: I would. He seemed very much relieved, in fact.
Why, I don’t know! because it wouldn’t inspire confidence…
to give it into the hands of someone so inexperienced and young and
just a kind of a little bookshop, not a publishing house at all.
– Sylvia Beach2
In 1922, Beach borrowed money to keep her store running and to finance the printing.
She hired a French art publisher in Dijon to print 1000 copies of Ulysses on
fancy, handmade paper. She had Joyce sign 100 of the copies.
She also made 20 copies on cheaper paper to give to the press and to libraries.6
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.
– Sylvia Beach7
Publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses made Sylvia Beach
“the most famous woman in Paris.” And she sold many, many copies—
not enough to ever recoup her losses, however.8
For several years ‘Ulysses’
was banned in the United States and Britain.
But hundreds of American visitors to Paris
bought the blue-covered paperback classic
at Miss Beach’s bookshop and
smuggled it into the United States
hidden with the little bottles of brandy and liqueur
that slipped past customs officials during Prohibition.
– The New York Times, 1962 3
Happy 135th Birthday
** Sylvia Beach **
– born 14 March 1887
in Baltimore, Maryland
of being in an independent bookshop…
and the other world that it opens up to you
…to live and breathe imagination
– Sylvia Whitman 9
Been thinking this week about my love of bookstores—
and specifically, the adventure of scouting out bookstores while traveling.
There is something special about wandering down a foreign street,
finding a book-filled shop, and being directed to the small,
or not so small, tower of English-language books.
I found the book on the library shelves and
while I was there in that section,
I lit on another book I hadn’t seen for years…
It was like meeting an old friend.
I borrowed both books, and went on my way rejoicing.
– from Loitering With Intent
by Muriel Spark
It’s fascinating to see what shows up:
Odd choices, old friends, and often lovely English translations
of local classics.
Shakespeare and Company is in a class by itself.
I’ve gotten to visit Paris twice in the past ten years,
and I went to Shakespeare and Company both times.
This is not the same building that Sylvia Beach owned.
The present-day Shakespeare and Company is on the Left Bank
in Paris’ 5th arrondissement—
less than a kilometer from Notre Dame Cathedral.
In fact, this beautiful building was once a 17th century monastery
for the monks of Notre Dame.9
It was started in 1951,
by George Whitman, who had owned a bookstore in Boston,
and came to Paris on the GI Bill.9
He named his shop in honor of his friend, Sylvia Beach.
He also honored her when naming his only child—
Sylvia Whitman, who now runs Shakespeare and Company.
Both George and Sylvia Whitman have carried on
Sylvia Beach’s spirit of generosity with their long-standing
‘tumbleweed’ program to support young writers by giving them
a bed and a place to work.9
For me to describe the bookshop
would be #1 bohemian, #2 eccentric, and #3 warm.
George is really the soul of the bookshop.
The three words describe him and the bookshop.
…A lot of writers have said that their library is their friends
…and I really feel that about the bookshop—
those books are your friends and your family, as well.
– Sylvia Whitman9
Here are 3 more of my
international book-finding adventures…
One of the days on my own,
I took a long walk to find a bookstore.
The person at the hotel front desk
gave me a map and marked two book stores.
I found the first one. It was useless; a sad excuse for a bookstore,
a bookstore for non-readers, and no English-language books, anyway.
The second bookstore was supposed to be in a mall.
I found the mall, but no bookstore.
When I asked, I was directed “out that door and to the left.”
Which led out, out, and off to chase the fabled wild goose.
At one point I was so, so lost
and I couldn’t match street signs to anything on my map.
(cue the heavenly voices: ‘Aaaaahhhh’)
I saw a map painted on the side of a building,
with a clear red dot, labeled: ‘U bevindt zich hier.’
And there I was.
I made my way
back toward the hotel, back onto my map,
but veered slightly in the hopes of going somewhat
in the direction that we’d gone with Willem—
I do remember we passed a nice looking bookshop that first day—
but all I found was University housing in old brownstone-looking buildings.
Just before I got back, realization dawned:
Duh. Our hotel is right next to the train station!
Train stations have newsstands, at the very least. Of course it did.
I bought an International Herald-Tribune and two novels.
Now I just needed to try and get those two books to last five days.
Our hotel has a little free library,
and there I found a book called Ayam Curtain
(edited by JY Neon Yang & Joyce Chng).
It’s a wonder-filled collection of Singaporean speculative fiction.
(This may have been my first time hearing the term ‘speculative fiction.’)
The editors encouraged the writers to imagine
alternative versions of Singapore, and to give
‘brief glimpses of their visions of what this country could be or might have been.’
Here’s an excerpt from Ayam Curtain:
The melody continues,
whispering of times long past,
or far to come.
There, hearts are lighter and minds are freer.
There, the drizzling rain bathes the birds
and the breeze whistles through the trees.
There, the Chinese proverb
“the birds converse among the flowers’ aroma”
From that moment on,
I knew with certainty that the birds
share the thoughts of the trees
and the trees share the language of the birds…
– from “Woodwind”
by Clara Yeo Zhe Xuan
in Ayam Curtain
I stopped into a little book shop
in a neighborhood called the German Colony.
I was happy to find they had an English-language section.
I bought myself two novels.
I overheard another customer asking, in English,
for a book recommendation for her kids.
After a few questions, the bookshop owner said,
“Oh, yes! Here’s the perfect thing if you’re heading to Greece.
Your kids will know all about the Greek gods.”
She was recommending Rick Riordan!
Walking away, I had fun picturing those kids
traveling through the Greek islands, reading Percy Jackson, and
wondering whether the statuary might come to life at any moment…
“Half Cup More”
During the Second World War,
Sylvia Beach had several run-ins with the German troops.
She chose to stay in Paris, and to keep her bookshop open—
even though most of her American friends were fleeing the country.
In later interviews, Beach remembered June 14, 1940,
when she and Adrienne Monnier cried as they
watched the Germans march into Paris.2
Once a group of soldiers came into her shop
asking for books about theater. She showed them some plays by Gordon Craig.
When they praised the writing, she asked them how they could
imprison such a talented playwright? Soon afterward, Craig was released.
I got Gordon Craig out of prison.
I just happened to. I wasn’t on good terms with these Germans,
but they came to my shop…and asked to look at my theatrical books.
I showed them all Gordon Craig’s books…I said
it’s a disgrace for you to have imprisoned Gordon Craig…
and they got him out. So I was instrumental in that.
– Sylvia Beach2
Later, Beach refused to sell a copy of Finnegans Wake
when an officer came in wanting to buy it.
“You wouldn’t understand James Joyce,” she told him.
The officer came back a second time and threatened to
confiscate everything in the shop if she wouldn’t give him that book.
She still refused. He left, saying he’d bring back soldiers that afternoon.
Sylvia Beach immediately called for help.
The owner of the building offered her an unused apartment upstairs,
and she and her friends emptied the entire shop into that apartment.
In about 2 hours, there wasn’t a book left.
…We piled up the stairs with all these things in clothes baskets.
All my friends came to the rescue. All my French friends—
they’re the ones who were left—and we hid everything upstairs.
I had the name Shakespeare and Company painted off the front…
and the carpenters even took down the shelves.
– Sylvia Beach2
Eventually, the soldiers came for her.
Sylvia Beach was interned for what she called “only five or six months”
in 1942, at a camp for enemy aliens at Vittel, France.
She was freed in an exchange brokered
by Tudor Wilkinson, a wealthy American art dealer,
who was bargaining with the Gestapo to free his wife Dolores from the same camp.
Sylvia Beach never did re-open her bookstore.
But she returned to Paris, reunited with Adrienne,
moved back in to her apartment above the old bookshop,
and lived there for the rest of her life.
Sylvia Beach wrote about her time as a bookseller in a memoir
called Shakespeare and Company (1956).
On a cold windswept street,
this was a lovely, warm, cheerful place
with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books,
new books in the window, and photographs on the wall
of famous writers both dead and living…
Sylvia had a lively, very sharply cut face,
brown eyes that were alive as a
small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s,
and wavy brown hair that was brushed back
from her fine forehead
She was kind, cheerful and interested,
and loved to make jokes and gossip.
No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.
– from A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
in a chapter called “Shakespeare and Company”
Sylvia Beach, 1926
by Berenice Abbott
The Clark Museum, Massachusetts
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
You Can Read More…
notes & footnotes
The Patron Saint of Bookstores
by Jamison Pfeifer
October 5, 2019
Sylvia Beach interview on James Joyce and Shakespeare & Company
Sylvia Beach, 75, Dies in Paris
The New York Times
October 10, 1962
Bookstore Patron Saints: Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
Bookbeat: The Backroom
September 8, 2020
Some of Shakespeare and Company’s
And here’s Shakespeare and Company’s own website!
“Please note that the charm of the Tumbleweed program
lies in its communal nature,
so be ready to share your space with others.
Privacy is not really an option!”
Letters of James Joyce (1957)
edited by Stuart Gilbert
Here’s a list of copies Sylvia Bench ordered
from printer Maurice Darantiere, an art publisher in Dijon, France:
** 100 copies on Dutch handmade paper and signed by James Joyce;
** 150 numbered copies on vergé d’Arches air-dried paper from Vosges, France;
** 20 unnumbered copies on mixed paper to give to libraries and the press; and
** 750 unnumbered copies on handmade paper
= 1020 copies of this first edition of Ulysses
Ex-Pat Paris as It Sizzled for One Literary Lioness
by Dwight Garner
New York Times
April 18, 2010
a 15-minute interview with Sylvia Whitman
Shakespeare and Company, Part 2
by Tin House
a 5-minute interview with Sylvia Whitman
Shakespeare & Co
A Crane TV Travel Video
by Trish Andres, Simon Lewis, and Holly Fraser.
Criminal Statutes on Birth Control in Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology
by J. C. Ruppenthal
With the Comstock Act of 1873,
the U.S. Congress outlawed any use of the the U.S. Postal Service
to distribute goods deemed vulgar, indecent, or filthy;
including, medicine or means for preventing conception, facilitating miscarriage
or abortion, and any instrument for “self-pollution.”
(Ruppenthal himself called this act
haphazard and capricious and lacking any clear, broad,
well-defined principle or purpose.)
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2023
2 thoughts on “For the Love of Books”
Reading this lovely piece brought back so many memories of Paris, and bookstores elsewhere.
Chuck and I always went to The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris for newly published books in English. And, too, I can remember at Shakespeare and Company, every book I found always by accident “flying into my hand.”
Thank you, Pat! I hadn’t heard of The Red Wheelbarrow.
A bookstore named for a poem, how lovely!
I just went on a little internet hunt; here’s what I scouted out:
The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore was opened in 2001 by Penelope Fletcher,
who’s from “an island off an island off an island” in Washington state.
Her first shop was in the Marais District.
Today The Red Wheelbarrow is located on the Left Bank of Paris,
at 9 rue de Médicis, in the Latin Quartier of the sixth arrondissment—
right across from the beautiful Luxembourg garden.
Thanks again for reading, Pat, and for sharing your books & Paris memories!
xox – Kelly