Sylvia Beachs Shakespeare and Company was at the epicenter of the Paris literary scene in the 1920s and 30s. The first English-language bookshop and lending library in Paris, it opened in November of 1919, welcoming in American and European writers and artists and introducing the world to James Joyce by publishing Ulysses. Packed floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves, the store became a haven for poets and novelists both established and just starting out, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and others of the Lost Generation among them.
It is fitting that the one-way U-shaped road behind the Princeton Public Library was recently deemed Sylvia Beach Way, particularly since Beach herself was a guardian and lover of books.
Born in Baltimore, Beach spent much of her childhood and early adulthood in New Jersey, first in Bridgeton, and then in Princeton. Her father Sylvester was the minister at the First Presbyterian Church, and a graduate of Princeton University (then the College of New Jersey) and Princeton Theological Seminary. The family moved to a home on Library Place in 1905 when Sylvia was 18 years old and became close friends with President of the University Woodrow Wilson and his family, as each had three daughters of similar ages.
Before arriving in Princeton, the Beaches had spent three years in Paris, where Sylvester was engaged in ministry. Mother Eleanor, Sylvia, and her sisters Cyprian and Holly, all took a strong liking to the flavor and pace of life in Europe, and each would later return for extended stays on the continent.
While Paris eventually became Sylvia Beachs home, New Jersey forever remained her home state and she felt a special kinship with New Jersey natives she met in Paris, including composer George Antheil and poet and physician William Carlos Williams. Today, the state maintains its connection to Beach, who is interred in Princeton Cemetery and whose assorted papers, letters, and photographs reside in Special Collections at the Princeton University Library.
A sickly child, Beach suffered from headaches so severe that she often had to stay home from school. She was an avid reader from a young age, her main interests being literature, poetry, philosophy, and foreign language study. By the time she arrived in Paris in August 1916, she was fluent in French and hoping to live in France for the foreseeable future, but was without a steady career or means of income.
A Bookshop in Paris
Beachs parents supported her and her sisters in Paris for a time, with Eleanor sending over money after secretly selling off family furniture when cash was in particularly short supply. Beachs voracious reading continued, and in March of 1917 she chanced upon Adrienne Monniers library, bookshop, and French poetry center on rue de lOdéon, a street with its theatre at the end reminding me somehow of Colonial houses in Princeton, Beach writes in her memoir, Shakespeare and Company (Harcourt, Brace, 1959), which friend and author Richard Wright encouraged her to write.
Both women described their first meeting as electric, with each exclaiming over the richness of the others native language while finding out that they had favorite authors in common and delighted in similar styles of poetry. It was an auspicious beginning to what grew into a 38-year romance and partnership.
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