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:
I heard a deep voice calling: "Sylvia!: And everybody in the street took up the cry of "Sylvia!" "It's Hemingway! It's Hemingway!" cried Adrienne. I flew downstairs; we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while people on the street and in the windows cheered. We went up to Adrienne's apartment and sat Hemingway down. He was in battle dress, grimy and bloody. A machine gun clanked on the floor. He asked Adrienne for a piece of soap, and she gave him her last cake. He wanted to know if there was anything he could do for us. We asked him if he could do something about the Nazi snipers on the roof tops in our street, particularly on Adrienne's roof top. He got his company out of the jeeps and took them up to the roof. We heard firing for the last time in the rue de l' Odeon. Hemingway and his men came down again and rode off in their jeeps -- "to liberate," according to Hemingway, "the cellar at the Ritz."