Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier

To book-lovers, the name Shakespeare and Co is renowned as a unique English-language Parisian institution.

Less well-known is a previous Shakespeare and Co bookshop, whose name was later gifted to George Whitman for his better-known enterprise. It was founded by Sylvia Beach, lover of Adrienne Monnier, who in turn was the proprietor of another bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres. Both stores left an incredible mark on the literary landscape of inter-war Europe, and the women who ran them were influential beyond their immediate circle.

Sylvia, born in the US in 1887, had arrived in Paris as a teenager in 1902 and after working with the American Red Cross in Serbia during in 1918-19, met Adrienne, who had in 1915 opened her bookshop and lending library with the aim of encouraging French writers and readers to engage with literature and discuss the modernist ideas which were flourishing in Paris at the time. Adrienne, born in Paris in 1892, encouraged Sylvia to open Shakespeare and Co across the road and this bookshop complemented Adrienne’s by serving the English language literary community.

Both women were writers, translators and publishers themselves. Sylvia published many writers struggling to find an outlet in those years. Famously she published the first complete English edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which cost her dear; it was later picked up by Random House, and Joyce neglected to share any of the proceeds with Sylvia, who was almost bankrupted by publishing the first edition.

Adrienne & Sylvia had a close friendship with another Parisian literary lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, and their bookshops were frequented by all the writers of the day, such as Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder and Andre Gide.

Adrienne’s working-class origins were central to her belief in democratising access to literature. By sponsoring readings and encouraging informal conversations among authors and readers, the two women brought to bookselling a hospitality that encouraged friendship as well as cultural exchange.

Their partnership, both professional and personal, was of enormous importance to them both and to their influential position in Paris’s literary scene between the wars. They lived together in an apartment further up Rue de l’Odeon and remained together until Adrienne’s death by suicide in 1955, weathering the Second World War, when Sylvia closed Shakespeare and Co to avoid having to serve occupying Nazi officers, and subsequently suffered arrest and a six-month spell of internment.

Despite Hemingway symbolically “liberating” Shakespeare and Co at the end of the German Occupation, Sylvia never reopened it, but in 1956, she wrote Shakespeare and Company, a memoir of the inter-war years detailing the cultural life of Paris at the time.

Adrienne’s taking of her own life, as a result of an unbearable condition, Meniere’s disease, had a profound effect on Sylvia who said, “I’ve a queer feeling about Adrienne—that not only is she gone but I’ve gone away myself somewhere.” She remained in Paris until her own death in 1962.

This devoted and innovative lesbian couple is an early example of the distinctive influence of lesbian women in the bookselling world, on a continuum which takes in the UK’s own Sisterwrite, Silver Moon, News from Nowhere, and other open-minded radical and feminist bookshops, many of which have since folded, though their spirit lives on.

References: [includes a 25 minute video recording of an interview with Sylvia Beach in 1962 on the occasion of the opening of the James Joyce Martello Tower in Sandycove, Dublin]

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