Beach, Whitman & Company

Sylvia Beach was born on this day in 1887. As Beach recalls in her memoir Shakespeare & Company, she got her love of Paris, and perhaps the model for her legendary bookshop, from her parents. When she was fourteen, her father, a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey, was posted to Paris, his job being to counsel American students there:

Every Sunday evening, in a big studio in Montparnasse, American students came under home influence. That is, Father gave a sensible talk, and some of the most brilliant singers of the time, such as Mary Garden and Charles Clark, the great cellist Pablo Cassals, and other artists gave their services to this work.

Beach’s Shakespeare & Company would offer books, a home, and a helping hand to many. By extending that hand to Hemingway, Joyce, and others, Beach and her store became, says Lewis Buzbee in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (2006), a modern model for the time-honored functions of such establishments — a place “where the ideas of a given period were traded” and “a stronghold in attacks against the rights of free speech.”

Beach’s legacy — her ideals, her welcoming style, her leftover books, and her bookshop’s name — was passed on to George Whitman, another American expatriate. In the opening chapter of his affectionate Next Gen-Lost Gen memoir, Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co (2005), Jeremy Mercer describes the circumstances of his first visit to Whitman’s store — his budding-writer penury, a driving rainstorm, a decision to spend a few precious francs on an old copy of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

When it came my turn to be served, the young woman at the desk gave me a bright smile and folded open the cover of my book. With meticulous care, she stamped the title page with the crest of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Then she invited me upstairs for tea.

Mercer lived upstairs for five months and eventually helped to unite Whitman with his estranged daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman; she now runs the store, her father having died in December 2011.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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