Monday, June 6, 2016

Pride Month Profiles: The Bookseller of Paris

Sylvia Beach: 1887-1962
Bookseller, publisher, author

Reviewing her published letters for The New York Times in 2010, Dwight Garner wrote:

If the world’s dwindling independent bookstores have a patron saint, an exemplar to cling to in moments of duress, she is Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), the soulful and fearless owner of Shakespeare & Company, the English-language bookstore she founded in Paris in 1919 and operated on the Left Bank until the German occupation during World War II. 

Beach was the first publisher of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and helped smuggle copies to readers in the United States. She coined the term Bloomsday to describe the day on which the novel is set. Her bookstore, packed with fresh journals, good sunlight and plump armchairs, was a sanctuary for the era’s best writers, ex-pat and otherwise. Her friends — she introduced many of them to one another — included Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Janet Flanner and the poet H. D. For her favorites she operated as banker, post office, clipping service and cheering section. She was a prizewinning translator of Paul Valéry and Henri Michaux.

The daughter of a Presbyterian minister and a doting mother, Nancy Woodbridge Beach became enthralled with Paris while her father was posted there as an assistant pastor at the American Church. The family returned to America in 1906 when her father took a post at a church in Princeton, New Jersey, but Beach returned to Europe for several return trips, including a two year stint in Spain. During the First World War, she served in the Red Cross in Serbia before finally settling in Paris to study contemporary French literature. Indulging a taste for invention, she changed her name to Sylvia and routinely claimed to have been born in 1896.

It was during the course of her studies that she discovered Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres. The two took an instant liking to each other, became lovers, and remained together for the next thirty-six years until Monnier’s death in 1955. In 1919, Beach opened her own bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, as an English-language counterpart to Monnier’s bookshop and lending library. Beach’s bookshop quickly became a favorite meeting place for American expatriate writers. Shakespeare and Company opened in 1919, when Beach was 32, with money supplied by her mother and vital help from Monnier. The shop’s literary clientele wasn’t wealthy, and Beach lent books, for a small fee, in addition to selling them. She referred to her patrons as her “bunnies,” a play on the French word for subscriber, “abonné.”

In those postwar days of favorable exchange rates, the shop prospered, and, in, and in 1921, she moved Shakespeare and Company to larger quarters at 12 rue de l’Odéon, right across the street from Monnier’s.

She handpicked her books, she had copies of all the new innovative literary magazines, and she sold contemporary literature that was banned in America and England. Shakespeare and Company became known as “the unofficial living room” of the expatriate artists living in Paris. She describes a reading in her bookstore, given by Hemingway and Stephen Spender, during which beer and whiskey were “displayed on the table in front of the boys, of which they were partaking freely.” The sight of this made Joyce stand up and leave. It “made him too thirsty,” she writes, “to stand it any longer.”

Sylvia Beach met Joyce in 1920, just as he was finishing Ulysses. He couldn’t get it published because all the big presses thought it was too obscene, so she offered to publish it for him, even though she’d never published a book before. To fund the project, she got people to buy advanced copies. She had no editors, so she edited the huge manuscript herself, and she published it on Joyce’s birthday, February 2, 1922.

As Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s longtime Paris correspondent, remembered, Joyce was an ungrateful bastard:

Over the years, Ulysses, though read only in its early fractions, had established itself as part of our literary life to come, when and if eventually completed and published. Thus long before our eyes had ever seen Sylvia Beach’s entire printed text in Paris and before our hands had ever lifted the full weight of its 730 pages, Joyce’s Ulysses had become part of the library of our minds. As we learned by listening to and watching Sylvia in her bookshop, to accomplish her publishing feat she became Joyce’s secretary, editor, impresario, and banker, and had to hire outsiders to run her shop. She organized international and local subscription lists for the book to help finance its printing. After typesetting had begun at Dijon, in a kind of postscript ecstasy of creation, Joyce scribbled some ninety thousand words more on the costly, repeatedly reset proofs, making a four-hundred-thousand word volume, of which Sylvia managed to have two copies printed for his birthday on February 2, 1922—one for him, one for her. 

Soon, Joyce was living the lush life, but not, however, with poor, long-suffering Sylvia. Flanner goes on: 

Ulysses was the paying investment of his lifetime after years of penury, Sylvia said, while hardly acknowledging the fact that the publishing costs almost wiped out her Shakespeare and Company. The peak of his prosperity came in 1932 with the news of his sale of the book to Random House in New York for a forty-five-thousand-dollar advance, which, she confessed, he failed to announce to her and of which, as was later known, he never even offered her a penny. “I understood from the first that, working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine—an infinite pleasure: the profits were for him.”

The Depression years were hard going; she thought she would be forced to close the shop in 1936. André Gide organized a group of writers into a club called Friends of Shakespeare and Company. Subscribers paid 200 francs a year to attend readings at Shakespeare and Company. Although subscriptions were limited to a select group of 200 people (the maximum number the store could accommodate), the renown of the French and American authors participating in readings during those two years attracted considerable attention to the store. Beach recalled that by then, "we were so glorious with all these famous writers and all the press we received that we began to do very well in business.”

“‘The Letters of Sylvia Beach’ is a small, excellent primer on bookselling and its discontents,” Garner wrote. “When world events get interesting, she complains, people buy newspapers, not books. She scrambles, during the early war years, to find fuel to keep the store habitable. And she dispels some of the profession’s romance. ‘A bookshop is mostly tiresome details all day long and you have to have a passion for it,’ she writes, ‘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.’

She remained open after the Germans entered Paris, but with difficulties: in 1941, a German officer wanted to buy the copy of Finnegans Wake that was on display in the shop window, and Sylvia refused to sell it to him. He threatened to confiscate everything in her shop. Within a few hours, Sylvia and a few friends moved all the books into hiding in an upstairs apartment and painted over the name on the door, and Shakespeare and Company vanished.

But the real trouble came to Sylvia Beach because she had kept an 18-year-old Jewish girl on the payroll as her assistant. The Nazis had warned Sylvia to get rid of the girl if she knew what was good for her, but she refused. The girl was put on a train to Poland and never heard from again, and Beach was interned for six months. She kept her books in a vacant upstairs apartment. In 1944,
Hemingway famously “liberated” Shakespeare and Company, but the shop never re-opened for business.

In 1955, Beach wrote her memoir, Shakespeare and Company, about the cultural life of Paris during the interwar years. She remained in Paris until her death in 1962. In the 1950s, she accepted the honors rising from new appreciation of her work, and published a self-deprecating memoir. She was buried in Princeton, New Jersey.

Beach willed her personal library, and rights to the Shakespeare & Co. name, to George Whitman, an American bookseller in Paris. The latter part may or may not have been true; Whitman was a fabulist who claimed to be descended from the American poet, when, in fact, his father was a physics professor who happened to be named Walter.  In 1964- for the Bard’s 400th birthday- he renamed his bookstore Shakespeare and Company as a tribute to Beach’s shop.

In 2014 Bruce Handy picked up the tale in Vanity Fair:
Writers who logged time at the current Shakespeare and Company, sometimes even sleeping there—Whitman was possibly keener on extending hospitality to authors, lauded or not, than on selling their books—include Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Lawrence Durrell, Anaïs Nin, James Jones, William Styron, Ray Bradbury, Julio Cortázar, James Baldwin, and Gregory Corso. Another early visitor, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founded his City Lights Bookstore, in San Francisco, as a sister institution two years after Shakespeare’s opened. William S. Burroughs pored over Whitman’s collection of medical textbooks to research portions of Naked Lunch; he also gave what may have been the first public reading from his novel-in-progress at the store. (“Nobody was quite sure what to make of it, whether to laugh or be sick,” Whitman later said.) Aside from Zadie Smith, more recent generations have been represented at the store by Martin Amis, Dave Eggers, Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Auster, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Lydia Davis, Charles Simic, A. M. Homes...
As well, an estimated 30,000 aspiring writers have bunked at Shakespeare’s over the decades, sleeping on intermittently bedbug-infested cots and benches scattered throughout the store in exchange for a couple of hours of work a day and a promise to spend at least some of their downtime reading and writing; a one-page autobiography is mandatory. “Tumbleweeds,” Whitman dubbed these aspirational itinerants. Robert Stone wrote parts of his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, while “tumbleweeding” in 1964, though to hear him tell it he expended far more energy getting “absolutely blasted” and listening to Radio Luxembourg late into the night. A Tumbleweed of recent vintage, C. J. Flood, a British writer whose first young-adult novel was published earlier this year, characterizes the experience in terms I imagine would apply to many a past, present, and future Tumbleweed: “I didn’t get as much writing done during my time there as I intended, but I certainly felt like a writer.” 
Whitman died on December 14, 2011, two days after his 98th birthday. Unlike many once young bohemians and idealistic self-proclaimed Communists, he hewed to his ideals all the way through to the end. He made a fetish of thriftiness, sometimes cooking from restaurant and market leavings for himself and guests. Unwilling to pay for haircuts, he trimmed his by lighting it on fire with candles. (You can see him do so in a video on YouTube that is equal parts beguiling and horrifying.) His one concession to fashion: a grotty paisley jacket he wore for decades and which had already seen better days when the poet Ted Joans described it as never-been-cleaned in 1974. In short, he was the rare businessman who cared little for money except as a vehicle to expand his shop, which over the decades grew from a single ground-floor room into the multi-floor, ad-hoc institution it is today. In a eulogy he wrote for Whitman, Ferlinghetti described Shakespeare and Company as “a literary octopus with an insatiable appetite for print, taking over the beat-up building … room by room, floor by floor, a veritable nest of books.” I like to think of it as a half-planned, half-accreted, site-specific folk-art masterpiece: the Watts Towers of bookselling, with its warren of narrow passageways lined by casually carpentered bookshelves; its small rooms adorned with whimsical names (OLD SMOKY READING ROOM and BLUE OYSTER TEAROOM); its owner’s favorite epigrams painted above doorways and on steps (LIVE FOR HUMANITY and BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE); its scavenged floorings, including, in one of the ground-floor rooms, marble tiling Whitman is said to have stolen decades ago from Montparnasse Cemetery and laid down in an abstract mosaic around the store’s “wishing well”—a hole in which customers toss coins to be harvested by the store’s more impecunious residents. (Sign: FEED THE STARVING WRITERS.)
[Whitman kept] a small apartment on the building’s fourth floor (or third, by French floor-numbering convention), which was really just an extension of the store. His own back bedroom had three walls of bookshelves, double-lined with books: novels, poetry, biographies, philosophy, complete sets of Freud and Jung—pretty much anything you can think of, plus the detective novels he kept stashed under his pillows. 
Having married at 67, Whitman turned over the store to his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, in his eighties. She installed a telephone, and later computers, and runs the store to this day, politely rejecting the demands of developers who show up demanding to buy the place. After all, a bookstore is just a place waiting to be turned into a hotel.

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