Who Is Sylvia Beach?

Sylvia Beach was the kind of woman I want to know: curious, brave, and above all, devoted to books and people who write them. Her life’s work was to share a love of books with others. She brought readers and writers together in her small Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, which she ran from 1919 –1942.

In Paris Sylvia made a life for herself among like-minded people. This is something many of us crave: a life full of friendships that evolve from a shared interest in the arts.

My main motivation for writing my novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach, is to share stories about this literary pioneer so she can inspire you, too. Here is a brief introduction to this bookish American.

How a prim daughter created an extraordinary life for herself

Sylvia grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of a minister. Her father was stationed in Paris for a year when Sylvia was 14, and that cemented a love in young Sylvia for France.

Fast forward to 1919. After World War I, Sylvia was at a loss for what to do. During the war, she’d volunteered in France and was eager to find a way to stay. A young, unmarried woman at this time was meant to get married and establish a household.

But travels in Europe and friendships with pioneering women like Carlotta Briggs and others showed Sylvia that living a staid life in Princeton wasn’t her only choice.

Options included starting an import/export business. This would allow her to live in the US but travel to Europe often. But a visit to the 6th arrondissement in Paris, where she met Adrienne Monnier, a bookseller on the rue de l’Odéon, sealed her fate. This new friend encouraged her to open a bookshop and lending library like hers, but for English language books.

With a $3,000 check from her mother, Sylvia plunged in. (That’s $45,000 today!) Despite her lack of business experience, with help from Adrienne and a deep passion for books, Sylvia thrived.

Becoming a rogue publisher

Sylvia’s faith in writers extended beyond book selling when she met James Joyce. When no one else would to publish his groundbreaking novel, Ulysses, Sylvia undertook the huge project at great personal cost. But with this, the bookseller proved to be more than a peddler of books, showing herself as a visionary.

Joyce’s book went on to be hugely popular and continues to be regarded as the classic modern novel, topping must-read lists to this day.

Stubborn or committed?

It wasn’t easy for Sylvia to keep her tiny bookshop afloat, especially during the Great Depression, when fewer Americans frolicked abroad.

It became even worse as World War II approached. Unlike many other Americans who had made Paris their home, Sylvia did not return to the safety of the US. Instead, she stayed in Paris with her shop.

Sylvia survived the Nazi occupation of Paris, and spent 6 months in an interment camp during the war. She shuttered the shop in 1942, closing the business she’d struggled to keep alive for twenty years.

Her commitment can show us how to persist despite obstacles. How a life lived according to one’s passions and interests is a rich one despite meager earnings.

What does Sylvia inspire in you?

Noel Riley Fitch’s book Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation introduced me to Sylvia when I was a young bookseller at Capitol Hill Books in Denver. Through this book I became enthralled with Sylvia. I wanted to know what fueled the brave decisions she made to live and work in France, to stay in Paris during the war and to selflessly devote herself to books and authors.

Keri Walsh recently published a book of Sylvia Beach’s letters. I read these letters in the archives at Princeton, and they are a great way to hear Sylvia’s voice and see her ever-optimistic spirit.

My novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach, is a fictionalized account that allows us to travel to Paris, 1937 to meet Sylvia and discover up close what this literary heroine has to offer us now. The book will be published in June, 2012.

Whether you read these books or not, my hope is that Sylvia’s life will inspire something in you. In my next post about Sylvia, I’ll be sharing how Sylvia’s actions nearly 100 years ago are relevant to us today.

What does Sylvia Beach inspire in you? Who is your Sylvia Beach and what does that person inspire in your work today?