B is for Sylvia Beach

B is for Sylvia Beach

At first, the calm and modest portrait of Sylvia Beach didn’t distinguish itself from tenths quirky yet fascinating illustrations of Maria Herreros. After reading Beach’s memoir and visiting the legendary Shakespeare and Company (The second bookstore, opened in 1951) together with Marika Maijala, I now see the portrait with different eyes. In the exhibition, it presents the whole extraordinary network of women for who Paris was neither mistress nor muse, but a different kind of woman.

Sylvia Beach, born Nancy Woodbridge Beach, (born 1887, Baltimore, U.S.—died 1962, Paris, France), was an American bookseller and a visionary publisher who became important in the literary life of Paris, particularly in the 1920s, when her shop was a gathering place for expatriate writers. In 1919 Beach opened the iconic Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop on the Rue Dupuytren in the St.-Germain-des-Prés quarter of Paris. Operating a lending library from her shop, she specialized in books published in Great Britain and the United States. The large American expatriate community, combined with a growing interest in American literature among the French, soon made her shop a gathering place; among those who frequented it were André Gide, Paul Valéry, Jules Romains, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Shakespeare and Co. became especially legendary because of the support Sylvia gave to authors. It was a store, a library, a bank, a post office, and sometimes a hotel. She hosted readings and social occasions for writers.

Marika Maijala: The Poet, 2019 & The Bookshop, 2019. Not on view.

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach at 8 Rue Dupuytren, 1921. Photo: Gisèle Freund. Retrieved from here.

In 1922, Sylvia published James Joyce’s Ulysses. Segments of it had been published elsewhere but Joyce could not find a publisher who was willing to handle the full novel. Sylvia coached him, encouraged him, raised the money for printing, and printed the first complete copy of the novel. Beach permanently closed her bookshop in 1941 during the German occupation. A new bookshop was opened in 1951 in Paris originally called Le Mistral, but later renamed Shakespeare and Company in honor of the late Sylvia Beach.

In the exhibition, the portrait and the literary scene of 1920s are displayed on their own wall in the first room, keeping in mind the character of the original Shakespeare & Co (See the picture below). As one aim of the exhibition is to re-create the (already beautiful) space, without too literally replacing or changing it, I was happy to see how the color combination of Maria Herreros’ works complements the atmosphere and Mattsson & Mattsson’s current objects and furniture.

Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Company. (photographer unknown) Retrieved from https://bonjourparis.com/history/sylvia-beach/




Further reading:

Sylvia Beach: Shakespeare & Company, 2006 (first published 1959)

Màxim Huerta & Maria Herreros: Paris Sera Toujours Paris, 2018, p. 134-145

Andrea Weiss: Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank, 2013

To see in the exhibition:

Maria Herreros: Portrait of Sylvia Beach, original illustration from the book Paris Sera Toujours Paris, 2018

Maria Herreros: Portrait of Gertrude Stein, original illustration from the book Paris Sera Toujours Paris, 2018

Maria Herreros: Ulysses, original illustration from the book Paris Sera Toujours Paris, 2018