Before delving into the particulars of this wonderful book, it is probably best to clear up any confusion over the store itself. In another well known-book, Time was Soft There, Jeremy Mercer chronicles his time at Shakespeare and Company. However, the store Mercer writes about is not the store Sylvia Beach founded, but one that another expatriate American named George Whitman opened in 1951 and renamed Shakespeare and Company after Ms. Beach’s death. In what was either a double homage or a case of grand larceny (depending on your viewpoint), Whitman not only took the name of Sylvia Beach’s bookstore for his shop, he also took her name as well: his only daughter is named Sylvia Beach Whitman, and she now runs his Shakespeare and Company.
The original Sylvia Beach started Shakespeare and Company in 1919 with $3,000 borrowed from her mother. As is the case with independent booksellers to this day, it was never a lucrative enterprise, but rather a labor of love. She began the store as a lending library for those looking for books in English, charging a small monthly membership fee; this practice was quite common in the early part of the last century, but has essentially vanished today. As time went on she began selling more books than she loaned, but the shop’s fortunes remained tenuous for its entire existence.
What makes Shakespeare and Company (the memoir) so appealing is the melding of Beach’s light, anecdotal writing style with the monumental people about whom she writes. This is more than a book about a bookstore; it is a chronicle of the writers, artists, publishers, and others who essentially made the shop their second home throughout the 1920s and 1930s. And while anyone writing a memoir likes to drop a name or two, the names in Shakespeare and Company stand out a bit.
One of Sylvia Beach’s best customers was a young, unknown (when she met him) writer named Ernest Hemingway. He was covering sports for a Canadian newspaper at the time, and it was to Sylvia Beach and her longtime partner Adrienne Monnier that Hemingway read his first short story. Hemingway and his wife Hadley later introduced Beach and Monnier to the grand sport of boxing. She knew all of the so-called "Lost Generation" writers, and her memoir contains stories about Hemingway, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, Robert McAlmon, Thornton Wilder, Andre Gide, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. It was Sylvia Beach who took F. Scott Fitzgerald to meet James Joyce when Fitzgerald was too nervous to go alone.
Her relationship with James Joyce and his family takes up a good part of the book, and with good reason. By her own admission, Sylvia Beach worshiped James Joyce. Her shop became an office of sorts for him; he met with other writers there, received his mail there (as did many other writers who had no stable address), and read through the inventory of the bookstore. But Sylvia Beach’s greatest contribution to both Joyce and literature was offering to publish his novel Ulysses when it had been rejected as obscene by his publishers in England and America. The trials of publishing and distributing Ulysses are interesting not only as history but as a cautionary tale against censorship even today.
Because she felt that authors deserved to be paid more for their work than the people who published them, she took no royalties from her publication of Ulysses, and nearly sent herself and the bookstore into bankruptcy covering the costs and expenses. It was only the intervention of several writer friends that saved her from having to close her doors permanently, but she seemed not to be concerned about what happened to her as long as Joyce’s novel made it to the readers who clamored for it.
Shakespeare and Company is a quick read, although you may have to look around a bit to find it; once my store is open you will always be able to find a copy there. It is a glimpse into an amazing time in the history of American literature, a wonderful chronicle of a bygone era, and a fine portrait of the woman to whom Hemingway gave his highest praise: "No one," he wrote in A Moveable Feast, "was ever nicer to me."