This week we are taking a little pause on our virtual road trip. Don’t worry. The journey will continue next week. But this week I want to take a moment to mark an important event in the history of literature. On February 2nd, 1922, Sylvia Beach, the founder of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, published the first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of this momentous occasion, and Shakespeare and Company will be celebrating with events, podcasts, and readings over the coming months. So what exactly is Shakespeare and Company? Well, it’s only my favourite store in Paris.
A Bookstore, A Library, A Home
Shakespeare and Company originally opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, an American expat living in Paris. It was an English language bookstore, and during the 1920s, it became a frequent gathering place for writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Man Ray, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. Unfortunately, Shakespeare and Company was forced to close during the German occupation of Paris in 1941, and Sylvia Beach was imprisoned for six months by the Nazis. She eventually returned to Paris, but she never re-opened the store. However, another American was on his way.
George Whitman opened Le Mistral, an English language bookstore and lending library, in 1951. Much like Slyvia’s store, it quickly became a gathering place for writers and artists in Paris. Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Bertolt Brecht were frequent visitors. In 1964, in honour of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Le Mistral was officially renamed Shakespeare and Company, carrying on Sylvia’s legacy. George Whitman lived above the store until his death in 2011 at the age of 98. Today, Shakespeare and Company is run by his daughter. Sylvia. Named after Sylvia Beach.
A Paradise of Books
To say that Shakespeare and Company is a favourite place of mine would be the understatement of the century. I love books. Probably more than is healthy. Certainly more than is healthy for my bank account. But I can’t help it. All I’ve ever wanted was to live in a home where I was surrounded by books. And I’ve made admirable progress on that front since settling in Paris. The majority of the books I’ve acquired have come from Shakespeare and Company, and I have several store-branded book bags to prove it. I’m incapable of going into that store without coming out with a stack of new books. And honestly? I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But Shakespeare and Company is not just a bookstore and reading library. They also hold events throughout the year. There are readings and discussions with some of the top authors writing today. They host literary festivals. There is even an online membership that gives you access to a wide range of literary content. And yes. I am a member. That really shouldn’t surprise you at this point. And for the next several months, Shakespeare and Company will be celebrating Ulysses.
A Contemporary Masterpiece
Ulysses is often cited as one of the most important works of Modernist Literature. It is often at the top of any list of the most important books of the past century, and it has been inspiring artists and scholarship for a century. But it almost wasn’t published. A hundred years ago, Ulysses was an incredibly controversial written work. It was banned from publication in some countries and prosecuted for obscenity in others. But Sylvia Beach recognized its importance and financed the publication of its first edition on February 2nd, 1922. It was James Joyce’s 40th birthday. I can’t imagine a better birthday gift.
I also must admit that I am not quite as enamoured with Ulysses as the rest of the world of literature. While I do recognize its importance in the history of contemporary fiction, I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite book. That being said, I will absolutely be taking part in the celebrations at Shakespeare and Company. There are two podcasts that will be released over the coming months. One, a reading of the book in its entirety by Friends of Shakespeare and Company. The second, a ten episode discussion of all things Ulysses. There is also a special centenary edition of the book on sale, and many other events between February 2nd, the date of its publication, and June 16th, the date during which the book takes place. I, for one, will absolutely be taking part in the celebrations.
A Must See in Paris
Shakespeare and Company is always at the top of my list of recommendations for people visiting Paris. Even if you’re not a fan of books, it’s still a must see. And if you happen to visit before June 16th, you can be a part of literary history. Shakespeare and Company can be found at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, directly across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral. The store motto is “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise”, so you know you are always welcome.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.