Sylvia & Co.

“No one that I ever knew was nicer to me…she was delightful and charming and welcoming and behind her, as high as the wall and stretching out into the back room which gave onto the inner court of the building, were shelves and shelves of the wealth of the library.” -Ernest Hemingway, A MOVEABLE FEAST

If there is one aspect of my personality that has stayed consistent since I was a child, it is the fact that I am, naturally, a very curious person. I find myself thinking about, inspecting and wondering about so many places and ideas throughout the day, thus learning so many new and wonderful things about my surroundings. Just the other day, while walking to the library from the Spring Street Parking Garage, I noticed the street sign, “Sylvia Beach Way.”  Whether it is entering or exiting the garage, visiting the library or returning a book through our book drop, most of our patrons and staff have seen the “Sylvia Beach Way” street sign. On this day though, I didn’t just walk past it. I found myself thinking about Sylvia Beach and wondering who she was and why someone would name a street after her in Princeton, NJ. Then it occurred to me, I work in a place where all life’s curiosities can be answered…a library.

Using her memoir, SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY, from our Local History collection and a couple of internet sources, including Bloom’s Literature and Literature Resource Center, from the library’s online resources, I was able to learn about the cultural and literary impact Beach had on society. And it was a great one.

Born in Maryland in 1919, Beach spent her childhood living abroad in Paris and, for a period of time, right here in Princeton when her father became the minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton (now Nassau Presbyterian Church). After moving to Paris to study French literature, Beach decided to open her own English-language bookshop and lending library with the help and inspiration of her friend and partner, Adrienne Monnier. The library was given the name “Shakespeare and Company.”

Shakespeare and Company was a small shop, filled to the brim with shelves of books as well as photos of writers and obscure art. Here, Beach met and hosted friends such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and many others. In 1922, Beach published ULYSSES, the controversial and banned novel by James Joyce, one of her most treasured friends. This made the shop a household name across Europe and the United States.

The Depression Era was hard on Shakespeare and Company, but the shop remained open until 1941, after the Fall of Paris. According to Beach’s memoir, a high-ranking Nazi official came into her shop requesting a book. She would not sell it to him, so he threatened to come back and confiscate her entire collection. She promptly hid all of the books and art in an upstairs apartment and closed the shop. Beach was held at an internment camp for six months and when she was released, Ernest Hemingway liberated the shop but it was never re-opened.

This incredibly smart and brave woman may have passed away in 1962, but her legacy lives on. In Paris, a fellow American and bibliophile, George Whitman, opened a bookshop and lending library in 1951. Later, after a meeting with Beach, he re-named the shop “Shakespeare and Company” in her honor. Like Beach, Whitman’s shop was a place where writers and artists could gather, sleep and cultivate their works. Today, Whitman’s daughter Sylvia (named after Beach), runs the shop and cultural landmark. But in America, more specifically, Princeton, Beach is laid to rest in Princeton Cemetery, watching over our library and, Princeton’s tribute to her, “Sylvia Beach Way.”

Photo courtesy of the author.

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