Shopping Modernism

The Letters of Sylvia Beach BY Sylvia Beach. edited by Keri Walsh, Noël Riley Fitch. Columbia University Press. Hardcover, 376 pages. $29.

The cover of The Letters of Sylvia Beach

The history of independent bookstores is littered with fallen monuments. Manhattan’s Eighth Street Bookshop counted the Beats and Auden as customers, but it was long gone when I moved to New York in 1992. In the past several years, we’ve lost the wonderful Dutton’s in Los Angeles; the Trover Shop, once an institution on Capitol Hill; and Cody’s in Berkeley (since when aren’t even that city’s good leftist citizens able to keep an independent bookstore open?). There is something inherently ephemeral about the trade, and the obstacles—indifferent publics, high rents, minuscule profit margins—are too many to list. It’s not just Amazon or the e-reader; there was always something putting the independents out of business, and whatever our sentiments, the world does not owe bookstores a living.

Love of books has certainly kept little shops going, but there is more to it than that. The Letters of Sylvia Beach suggests it’s sheer cussedness. The patron saint of independent booksellers everywhere and the spunky proprietress of Shakespeare and Company, the famed Left Bank bookshop, Beach was a one-woman clearinghouse for literary modernism, “a culture hero of the avant-garde,” as Kerri Walsh writes in her fine introduction to this collection. Beach most famously published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, when it was effectively banned in the United States and Britain after a series of obscenity prosecutions. She could count as friends an ABC of Jazz Age writers: Fitzgerald, H. D., Hemingway, Pound, and Stein, among others.

For all her association with modernism, Beach was never in thrall to highfalutin theories about literature, and her criteria for recommendation were modest and simple. “Good writers are so rare that if I were a critic, I would only try to point out what I think makes them reliable and enjoyable,” she wrote in her 1956 memoir, Shakespeare and Company. “For how can anyone explain the mystery of creation?”

The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Beach was born in 1887 and grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. As a young woman, she was active in the suffragist movement; during World War I, as a relief-services volunteer, she worked in France picking grapes and harvesting wheat, unlikely tasks for a future bookseller. Here began her long sojourn abroad. After a stint in Belgrade with the American Red Cross, Beach started entertaining “a vague plan for a bookshop” and settled on Paris. It sounds quaint, but as Walsh notes, Beach was a canny businesswoman: Paris beckoned not only for its charm but because it was cheaper to conduct business in francs than in dollars or pounds. In opening Shakespeare and Company in 1919, Beach had financial help from her mother, but her guiding light was Adrienne Monnier, who became her lover and adviser in the 1920s. As a translator, publisher, and bookshop owner herself, Monnier was already established in literary Paris—“the Pope-to-be-erè-long throughout France in that Branch of art,” Beach described her in a letter home—and helped the newcomer establish her operation.

There isn’t a lot of swooning about the glories of literature in Beach’s letters. Though the collection includes correspondence with Hemingway, Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Harriet Weaver, former publisher of the influential literary magazine The Egoist, some of these missives, which often deal with rights and other prosaic matters of the trade, might as well have been left in the archives. To Hemingway in 1925, Beach wrote: “The 12 copies [of In Our Time] have come and I can send him one if you haven’t, and you ought to autograph it. Can you come around for a minute tomorrow . . .” (It was no golden age for literature—the print runs for first fiction were tiny back then, too.) Even bibliographers might find this dull, and seemingly the only justification for the inclusion of a good handful of these letters is their famous recipients.

Still, Beach was an animated correspondent, and some of the most engaging of these letters, often to her sisters, describe her experiences putting out Ulysses. The publication of Joyce’s masterpiece was the original hand-sell. Beach spread the word about her forthcoming title, selling advance copies—some printed on fancy paper stock, others more plainly wrought—to subscribers. The force of her personality stirred the anticipation. Beach knew you couldn’t just sit back and hope for an audience—you had to flog your wares. “Ulysses is going to make my place famous,” she presciently wrote her sister Holly in April 1921. “Already the publicity is beginning and swarms of people visit the shop on hearing the news. I’m getting out a bulletin announcing the publication in October of the book and you will soon receive one. All American & Eng subscriptions are to be sent to me and if all goes well I hope to make money out of it, not only for Joyce but for me. Aren’t you excited!” At such moments, Beach’s pluck is irresistible.

In the mid-’20s, Beach practically became Joyce’s agent. He was tormented by eye problems, and she actively wrote letters on his behalf to publishers, trying to place Ulysses for review, all the while scrambling to clamp down on pirated editions. Beach’s letters of this period record her long advocacy of both Joyce and his copyright, which seemed up for grabs. She wasn’t up against Google Books and its team of highly paid lawyers, but rather entrepreneurial publishers (who paid little regard to the niceties of copyright, to be sure) not much different from herself. It was at times a losing battle, but Beach was a vigorous steward of Joyce’s interests.

Ulysses did indeed sell, but the business of running a bookshop exacted its toll. Economic downturns, then as now, are not good for book sales—it’s hard to escape into literature when the world is falling apart, as Beach would find out. (Small-circulation literary magazines, a specialty offering of Shakespeare and Company, were absolute money losers: “Already I have to pay a heavy duty on reviews as well as books coming into France,” she complained to one editor, “and this a dead loss when copies are unsold.” Not much has changed in that department . . .) The coming of the Depression proved nearly insurmountable. Literary Paris no longer buzzed with expatriates, and there were other diversions for book buyers. To Joyce’s brother, Stanislaus, Beach complained in 1934 that “people are spending all their spare cash on newspapers now, that recount all these exciting events and ‘hot news’ so there is nothing left to buy books. And there are no Englishmen nor Americans in Paris any more.”

What the economy started, the war finished. Shakespeare and Company did not survive the German occupation of France. Beach closed the shop in 1941, hid its stock in her apartment upstairs, and was interned for several months in a detention camp. She survived and returned to Paris, but she never reopened. (There is indeed a Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Founded by another American expatriate and named in honor of Beach, it somewhat pretentiously tries to re-create the ambience of the original.) The moment had passed, and Beach, in ill health, managed to write a memoir about the inter-war years before dying in Paris in 1962. Shakespeare and Company would take its place in the long line of shuttered bookstores. But Beach had become a fact of literature, as had the place that was once “rather famous as a resort of writers.”

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to Bookforum.