There comes a time during any English speaker’s sojourn to Paris when a pang of homesickness might hit. It might not be a pang for the actual home, but may be just a pang for the language, for something familiar. That, and the needing to ease the frustration of trying to get simple points across in French. Shakespeare & Company is like a well in an oasis when these pangs hit.
Shakespeare & Company is an English language bookstore with a two part history. It is probably one of the most well known expatriate bookstores in the world, having supported through its two incarnations the careers of writers like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Earnest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and many others.
* * Part One * *
Sylvia Beach (1887 – 1962) was an American from Maryland and New Jersey, and later, Princeton, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who had the opportunity to move with her family to Paris in 1901 where they lived until 1905. After the family’s return to The States, Sylvia made a number of trips back to Europe, eventually spending two years in Spain and then moving to Paris to study French literature. It was then that she met Adrienne Monnier, the owner of a literary bookshop and lending library on rue de l’Odeon.
Sylvia became fast friends with Adrienne and eventually wanted to set herself up with her own shop. At first she wanted to open a French literary bookstore in New York, but did not have enough savings to do so. Instead, with the help of Adrienne, she opened up an English bookshop at 8 rue Dupuytren in the 6th in Paris, where rents were less expensive and her investment could go further.
This was the opening of the original Shakespeare and Company. During its life Sylvia supported many writers, most notably James Joyce. It was she who first published his book Ulysses and kept it on her shelves while it was banned in the UK and the US. Shakespeare and Company did well throughout the 1920’s when the exchange rate was good and there was a large influx of American expats to keep the store afloat. In May 1921 she needed a larger space and mover the store to 12 rue de l’Odéon.
Sylvia didn’t run into trouble until the Great Depression when she found that she needed to be supported by her circle of well to do friends. In the mid-30’s she started to sell subscriptions which allowed the holders to attend literary readings by visiting authors. Even though Shakespeare and Company survived the occupation of Paris, and the store got wild reviews during the times when famous writers visited, she was forced to close the store in 1941. During WWII she spent time in an internment camp but avoided Nazi confiscation of her books by hiding them in an apartment above 12 rue de l’Odéon. She never reopened the store after that.
* * Part Two * *
After WWII, George Whitman found himself in Paris, not wanting to return right away to the United States. He found a small apartment on Boulevard Saint-Michel and began his studies at the Sorbonne. It was through his friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, that he was persuaded to open a bookshop using his large collection of English books, and an inheritance from his aunt.
For the first few years the bookshop was named Le Mistral. It wasn’t until two years after Sylvia Beach’s death in 1962, when she willed her English book collection and the name Shakespeare and Company to Whitman that the store name was changed.
George Whitman was a contemporary of The Beats and many of them found their way to the store. Whitman was generous with allowing people to stay at the store, only asking that they work for two hours and read a book a each day.
In 2003 the bookstore was handed over to Whitman’s then twenty-two year old daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, named after the original owner of Shakespeare and Company.