Bookstores are sacred spaces. Their promise of wisdom and discovery, their anchoring communities of thoughtful readers, and their providing people who can offer informed reading suggestions make them indispensable. I think it's a good goal in life to have a bookstore as the place where everybody knows your name.
Of course, the independent bookstore I describe is endangered, overwhelmed by retail giants and online competitors. Those of us lucky enough to be been in some great stores will always remember them. I can still recall the moment, decades ago when I was very young, wandering into City Lights in San Francisco and being delighted and astonished that the store provided comfortable chairs to sit and sample a book. Reading was as prized there as on my own couch 3,000 miles away.
Among the many dedicated booksellers in history, Sylvia Beach is one I most admire. Sylvia--it's revealing that after reading so much about her, I can't call her by her last name--opened Shakespeare and Company in Paris. She was among the brave young women who had flocked there for personal freedom and to champion the modern in art and literature. Sylvia sought to give birth to herself; she had even changed her birth name of Nancy. She wanted to live in a world of her own making, then a difficult task for any young woman, much less a minister's daughter who loved other women.
She moved to Paris and noticed that a literary review she wanted could be purchased at Adrienne Monnier's bookshop. Sylvia went to buy the review, and met the woman with whom she shared a long-term love relationship. Monnier offered French books, but Sylvia was determined to provide American books. After opening a shop around the corner, she eventually moved Shakespeare and Company across the street from Monnier's store. Both women saw their bookshops as lending libraries. Women readers didn't have the funds to buy books. Because women were excluded from universities, Sylvia knew those women ached for knowledge. Sylvia also thought a book ought to be read before it was bought.
Sylvia pioneered the art of making a bookstore's windows attractive. She carefully placed literary magazines there, and readers were enthralled to discover the author of a story or poem in such magazines might be inside the bookstore ready for a chat. What an array of writers showed up there to borrow books or to give readings or--who knows?--maybe even to buy a book. T.S. Eliot was there, as were Gide, Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Bishop, Malcolm Cowley, Janet Flanner, Archibald MacLeish, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, and many others. Hemingway walked in for the first time announced himself by taking off a shoe and sock to show Sylvia his war scars. She fed the artists who needed food and loaned money to others. Her store served as Hemingway's post office.
Americans came to Paris to see the Lost Generation, a term first used by a garage mechanic with whom Gertrude Stein spoke at a hotel. Hemingway used the phrase as the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises, making it famous. The Americans transformed the lending library into a bookstore. They spent real money, probably shocking Sylvia.
In 1922, Sylvia published Ulysses. No one else would take the chance, and very few would work with an author as demanding as James Joyce.
Sylvia kept Shakespeare and Company opened from 1919 until 1941 when the Nazis occupied Paris. The store was closed after Sylvia refused to sell a Nazi officer her last remaining copy of Finnegans Wake. Sylvia spent six months in an internment camp. She never opened her store again.