In Paris, The Lost Generation’s Lost Bookstore
PARIS — Shakespeare and Company—the original Shakespeare and Company—is no more. The historic and iconic American bookshop in the City of Light, where an enraged Ernest Hemingway once knocked a large vase of tulips over some precious hardcovers and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin showed up with a draft of Tropic of Cancer, is now a nondescript boutique selling ladies’ separates.
“On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, “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… and even the dead writers look as though they had really been alive.”
Today, with its displays of pastel-hued silk polo shirts and tweed jackets, the store bears no resemblance to that famed librairie. But one might fantasize about an echo of the past. Its owner in its heyday, Sylvia Beach, was known for her staid style. Perhaps the prim blazers and floor-length skirts on display here would have met with her approval.
The name “Shakespeare and Company” today belongs to a ramshackle building at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie near Notre Dame Cathedral. And although that store is very much open, and packed with tourists, it is linked to its Jazz Age predecessor only in name and has no ties to the legendary “Lost Generation” of writers that swarmed the French capital during the 1920s.
The original was situated at 12 Rue de l'Odéon in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, which was then a scruffy, bohemian part of the city and is now one of the most chic.
Sylvia Beach had first thought she might open a French bookshop in New York. The 32-year-old minister’s daughter from Baltimore dreamed of a stateside store modeled after the Paris bookstore and lending library, La Maison des Amis des Livres, which belonged to her lover, Adrienne Monnier, whom Beach had met while studying modern French literature at the Sorbonne.
“I had long wanted a bookshop and by now it had become an obsession,” Beach wrote in her memoir Shakespeare & Company. “I had wanted to help French writers become more widely known in my country,"
She soon realized, however, that the $300 she got from her mother’s savings couldn’t cover the costs of the venture, so she set her sights on a Paris shop of her own.
In November of 1919, a year after the end of the world war that had left France devastated, the first Shakespeare and Company opened its doors at 8 rue Dupuytren, just around the corner from Monnier’s bookshop on rue de l'Odéon. This shop still exists as well, but today the scent of old pages has been replaced with the odors of cedar, lemon, and cinnamon, as the space now houses the Paris branch of a French chain selling organic cosmetics and essential oils.
It wasn’t long before Beach’s cozy American bookstore/lending library with its antique furnishings was drawing in tourists, locals, the curious, and more than a few literary luminaries. Sherwood Anderson stopped in after catching sight of a copy of his book Winesburg, Ohio in the window. Ezra Pound and his wife also paid a visit. And shortly after the store opened, one of the most influential literary couples of the time also passed through its doors.
“Two women came walking down rue Dupuytren,” Beach recalled in Shakespeare & Company. “One of them, with a very fine face, was stout, wore a long robe, and on her head, a most becoming top of a basket. She was accompanied by a slim, dark whimsical woman: she reminded me of a gypsy. They were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.”
Two years after the shop’s opening, Beach moved Shakespeare and Company to new quarters at 12 Rue de l'Odéon, where it would remain until its closure in the early days of World War II. Part literary oasis, part expat social club, the store continued to lure renowned (or soon to be renowned) ladies and gentlemen of letters. Hemingway popped in almost daily and became a close friend to Beach and Monnier, taking the two women to boxing matches and outdoor cycling events.
Monnier said that the young Hemingway had “a true writer’s temperament,” and Beach raved about his talent and work ethic. What he didn’t take well to, however, was criticism, which was what led to the tulip-smashing incident.
Hanging around the shop one day in 1934, Hemingway happened upon a less-than-complimentary article written by critic Wyndham Lewis titled “The Dumb Ox.” The scathing critique of the author threw him into such a rage that, as Beach remembered, “he punched the heads off three-dozen tulips, a birthday gift. As a result, the vase upset the contents over the books…” However, all was forgiven after Beach’s agitated friend calmed down and “wrote a check payable to Sylvia Beach for a sum that covered the damage twice over.”
“There is an illusion of Hemingway as the macho man, but that is not who he was,” Michael Katakis, a writer and manager of Hemingway’s literary estate told me over the phone. “He was warm to his friends, incredibly devoted. I think he adored Sylvia Beach and she was very, very good to him.”
Hemingway himself would appear to agree. Recalling their friendship in A Moveable Feast, he wrote: “No one I knew was ever nicer to me.” He also remarked that she had pretty legs.
During her years at the helm of Shakespeare and Company, Beach emerged as a character in her own right, often described as a physically diminutive woman and tireless worker who was dedicated to literature, and devoid of pretentiousness.
“She was a birdlike little figure but she had the strength and energy of a thoroughbred racehorse,” James Laughlin wrote in his introduction to the latest edition of Beach’s memoir. “She was a chain-smoker and constantly in motion.”
New York Times reporter Marjorie Reid, who wrote about Beach as she was opening the shop’s rue de l'Odéon location, described her as a “slight young woman in mannish attire, with bobbed hair, keen, level eyes, lips both firm and sensitive, who is ready to welcome visitors on almost any morning or afternoon.”
Many who knew her commented on her buttoned-up appearance, which seemed incongruous with the hard-drinking, hedonistic lifestyle that abounded among the literary lions and lionesses of the day. Publishing historian Hugh Ford remembered Beach’s preference for tailor-made velvet jackets, bow ties, felt hats and skirts of “non-descript dark cloth, and sensible American shoes.”
“Beach didn’t say much about her private life,” Keri Walsh, the editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, told me in an email. “I think Beach loved sensual people who combined their sensuality with big intellects like Adrienne Monnier and James Joyce precisely because her own respectable and cheery upbringing didn’t allow her to show that side of her personality very much. She dedicated her life to such people.”
Indeed, another of Beach’s notable accomplishments was the publication of the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was banned in Britain and the United States because of its sexual themes. In New York, the magazine The Little Review was subjected to an obscenity trial after publishing one chapter.
Shakespeare and Company rallied behind the book, even providing handy disguises for it crafted from the covers of less offensive tomes, which British and American readers much appreciated. Despite their successful collaboration, Beach’s relationship with Joyce, who Monnier believed was too demanding, soured. She and Joyce parted ways in 1932 over a contract dispute, and she released all rights of the book to Joyce.
In 1936, when the shop was in financial difficulties, André Gide organized subscriptions for a series of readings that not only kept it afloat, but brought so many distinguished writers and such good press that business flourished.
Then, the death of Shakespeare and Company came suddenly. Although Beach managed to keep the store open during the early days of the Nazi occupation, her American nationality and numerous Jewish affiliations meant that she was closely monitored. One day in 1941, a German officer strode into the shop and demanded that Beach sell him a copy of Finnegan’s Wake. After Beach refused, he threatened to return and confiscate the store’s entire stock. Beach knew she had to act fast. With the help of her friends, she ferreted all of the shop’s contents, even the light fixtures, to the vacant apartment upstairs.
“Not a single thing was to be seen in the shop, and a house painter had painted out the name ‘Shakespeare and Company,’ on the front of 12 rue de l'Odéon,” she wrote. Within two hours a 22-year-old Paris literary institution had vanished.
Although Beach was able to save Shakespeare and Company’s wares from Nazi confiscation, the shop’s proprietor was less fortunate. She was shipped to an internment camp in the French commune of Vittel, where she spent six months. Returning to Paris, Beach kept a low profile. Although she had been released, the Germans could ship her back anytime they saw fit, so she holed up at a hostel for American students and visited Rue de l'Odéon in secret.
The end of the war arrived in the form of an old friend. Shooting was still going on in the street outside, but one day she heard a deep voice calling her name. It was Hemingway, who had rolled up with a cortege of jeeps to “liberate” the Rue de l'Odéon.
“He wanted to know if there was anything he could do for us,” she wrote. “We asked him if he could do something about the Nazi snipers on the rooftops on our street. He got his company out of the jeeps and took them up to the roof. We heard firing for the last time in the rue de l'Odéon.”
Despite Hemingway’s dramatic “liberation,” Beach never reopened her shop. The Lost Generation’s literary reign had come to an end and Beach herself had endured many difficult years.
“She was 58 when the war ended, which is young by our standards, but she had been through a lot,” said Walsh. “After having been in a German internment camp and losing both her parents, [with] Adrienne’s worsening health, and the breakup of her friendship and partnership with Joyce over his sale of the rights of Ulysses to Random House… I think she couldn’t muster quite the same enthusiasm as she’d had before the war.”
The Shakespeare and Company you’ll find near Notre Dame today was founded in 1951 by American George Whitman, who originally called the shop Le Mistral after the powerful winds that barrel through the south of France. He changed the name to Shakespeare and Company in 1964 in honor of Beach, and he named his daughter after her, as well.
Over the years, the late George Whitman’s generosity and eccentricity grew legendary in their own right. In a memorable documentary about him by Gonzague Pichelin and Benjamin Sutherland, he showed a couple of young women how, instead of cutting his hair, he burned it off with a candle.
Today Sylvia Beach Whitman runs Shakespeare and Company. Like her namesake, Whitman and her shop also nurture young writers in Paris’s expat literary community, some of whom, known as Tumbleweeds, even bunk in the store in exchange for work. The readings and other literary events there can be memorable, but it’s often so crowded one has to wait in line, Disneylike, to reach the musty interior.
More tranquil, but still in the great Parisian tradition of expat librairies, is the Abbey Bookshop behind Saint Severin, which is just a short walk away from Notre Dame. Its floor-to-ceiling stacks, eclectic assortment of editions, and convivial owner are heirs to the spirit of Beach’s store. Brian Spence, originally from Toronto, offers customers coffee and tea (beneath a Canadian flag) and is happy to special order a book if it’s not tucked into one of the store’s cramped shelves.
Back on the Rue de l'Odéon, the pricey aromatherapy and fashion boutiques are one more reminder that the Paris of Beach’s day is no more. That city was shabbier and cheaper, and living life like there was no tomorrow, as memories lingered in everyone’s mind of the Great War when, for more than a million French men, no morrow had ever come.
The low rents in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s were one of the main draws for the many starving American artists who settled here. Although Americans are still lured to the city by the legends of the Lost Generation, today’s travelers, accustomed to modern creature comforts, may have found the Paris of the original Shakespeare and Company a bit sordid. Plumbing could be iffy. Drunks often were found passed out in bistro doorways, and the cafés were bustling for practical rather than social reasons—nobody wanted to go back to their garrets.
“The hot rum punch and checker season has come in,” Hemingway wrote to the American poet Harriet Monroe in a letter dated November 16, 1922. “Cafés much fuller in the day time now with people that have no heat in their hotel rooms.”
Modern tourists search for the romance of la bohème without the tragedy.
“Myth is what never was but always is,” said Katakis, quoting Joseph Campbell. “The Ritz bar has turned into the church of Hemingway, where you see all these tourists wanting to be close to the ghosts of who they think these people were.” (Actually, the Hemingway Bar in the Ritz isn’t even in the same corner of the hotel as the original.)
Katakis believes that in our current consumer-driven society, such specters from the city’s past offer something that is missing from our frenetic, digitalized world.
“This was an extraordinarily tumultuous time, and an incredibly romantic time,” he said. Today’s visitors “go home and feel like they touched a bit of immortality and history.”
For those who yearn for the romance and tumult that characterized the days of the original Shakespeare and Company, Katakis advises the nostalgia-afflicted to steer clear of pre-constructed ideas of a literary Paris that no longer exists.
“To find the magic of Paris that Hemingway described, walk down a street and discover it on your own,” he said.