January 17, 2018
Shakespeare & Co.On this day in 1919 American expatriate Sylvia Beach opened her bookshop-library, "Shakespeare and Company," at 12 rue de l'Odeon, in the Left Bank section of Paris. It was an intellectual and social center for the international literary community throughout the World War years, a place where Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, et al. could be not only read, but found. Beach's determination to publish Joyce's Ulysses made her bookshop famous (and a popular stop for many book-smugglers); ironically, it was her refusal to sell her last copy of Finnegans Wake which caused her doors to finally close.
It is a tale to stir the heart of any booklover. Beach had defiantly kept her shop open through the early years of WWII, despite the reasons for closing: an ever-dwindling supply of books, and Paris reduced to only 25,000 citizens, few with time for literature; the dispersal of the "Company," as many expatriates fled home; the loss of this volunteer or friend to the death camps or the Resistance or suicide; the emotional blow of Joyce's death at the beginning of '41. One day in early December of that year, a big, gray military car stopped in front of the bookshop, and a high-ranking officer got out. He studied the display window and then asked, reader-to-reader and in perfect English, to buy Finnegans Wake. When Beach explained that she had only one personal copy left, not for sale, he clicked his heels and stomped out. Beach hid her copy of the book; the German officer returned; they had the same conversation with the same result, though this time the officer shouted, "We're coming to confiscate all your books today!" In two hours Beach and Friends had all 5000 volumes of Shakespeare and Company in hiding up on the fourth floor, where they stayed until the liberation. If the officer returned that day he must have thought he was in a Twilight rather that a Militarized Zone, as 12 rue de l'Odeon was completely empty -- light fixtures, shelves, everything -- and the sign outside had been painted over.
Shakespeare and Company would never reopen, but the books were liberated, Beach says in her memoirs, on August 26th, 1944, and in Hemingway style:
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