Nancy Woodbridge Beach was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and the family migrated to Paris in 1901 when Sylvia was fourteen years old. At the age of nineteen in 1906, she returned to America with her parents, but travelled back to Paris in 1918 to study French literature, where she met Adrienne Monnier.
On 19 November 1919, Beach opened her own bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, at 8 Rue Dupuytrens in the 6th arrondissement. It was this store that James Joyce frequented before Beach relocated the business to larger premises on 27 July 1921 at 12 Rue de l’Odéon, where it operated until the end of 1941.
Beach published the first edition of Ulysses in Paris on 2 February 1922, particularly to coincide with Joyce’s 40th birthday. Joyce’s sponsor, Harriet Shaw Weaver, owner of the Egoist Press in London, followed by publishing the first British edition in October 1922.
At the beginning of the Second World War, Beach stored her books in an apartment above the bookshop at the end of 1941 with the German occupation and her detainment. Interred at Vittel, in France, for six months, she was released in February 1942. She remained in Paris, where she lived with Adrienne Monnier, at 18 Rue de l’Odéon, for thirty-six years, until Monnier’s suicide in 1955. However, she never re-opened the store. Instead, she published her own book about it in 1956, simply titled Shakespeare and Company. She died in Paris on 5 October 1962 at the age of seventy-five, and is buried in Princeton Cemetery, New Jersey, in the city of her childhood.
The James Joyce Society of Sweden and Finland erected a plaque in the late 1990s to commemorate the 12 Rue de l’Odéon store.
The American bookseller George Whitman established a bookstore in Paris in 1951, calling it Le Mistral, but in 1964 he renamed it Shakespeare and Co. Antiquarian Books after Beach’s store—commonly known as Shakespeare and Company, where it continues to operate in Paris to this day at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie on the Left Bank in the 5th arrondissement. The “new” Shakespeare and Company bookstore is not in the same location as the original, nor does it have any connection to Sylvia Beach, yet its exterior and interior have been faithfully imitated, providing visitors with the ambience of yesteryear and a wealth of English-language literature and publications.
Photographer: Martina Nicolls