- N.J. Mastro
Sylvia Beach, Booklegger
Certain people stick with you, whether you meet them in person, or, as with historical fiction, you meet them on the page. Such is the case for me with the protagonist in The Paris Bookseller, by Kerri Maher. It isn’t often a reader gets a front-row seat to a period in literary history, but Maher gives us one through Sylvia Beach, an American living in post-World War I Paris.
The book’s title hooked me before I opened the covers and smelled the familiar scent of fresh ink on pristine paper, before I ran my fingertips across the smooth, glossy jacket. I am a glutton for books. Some women go for shoes, but catchy titles and alluring cover art seduce me. I suppose that makes me a sinner and bookstores my house of ill repute. I love bookstores.
Reading The Paris Bookseller reminded me just how special a bookstore is and why I appreciate bricks and mortar as compared to ordering online. I do my share of that, too, but it doesn’t result in the same experience. An actual store surrounds book lovers with something irresistible: books and like-minded individuals who value and appreciate the printed word as much as they do. Everyone inside those walls is a kindred soul.
The digital age has robbed us of that kind of gathering space. I don’t want to take away anything from the online book groups I belong to. The energy is invigorating. And I’m thrilled at the number of authors we can interact with on Zoom these days. Woo-hoo! At least one good thing came out of the pandemic. Libraries offer book lovers a similar experience to a bookstore, and to them, I offer a hearty shout out as well. But, if possible, I like to own my books. When I read a book, a part of me goes into that story, and the story becomes a part of me. The characters and I become intimate friends. I memorialize the setting in my mental travel log. The Paris Bookseller now occupies a place on my shelves and in my heart.
As the novel opens, Sylvia Beach is living in Paris, in search of her next adventure. In due time, she opens Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore and lending library specializing in books written in English. In creating a space for readers to gather, she inadvertently creates a meeting place for writers. Members of the so-called The Lost Generation trickle in. Word spreads, and soon, expatriates like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound (the list is long) become friends with Sylvia, and sometimes, allies. There are the noteworthy Parisians as well.
The focus of Sylvia’s attention, however, is James Joyce, the writer from Ireland working on a new book called Ulysses. When Sylvia meets him, Joyce is serializing Ulysses it in an American literary magazine as he writes called The Little Review. But when a successful suit is filed in New York against Ulysses for being “obscene,” the United States bans any further publication or distribution on its soil. The United Kingdom also bans Ulysses, effectively barring Joyce from two gigantic markets. In the aftermath, Joyce finds it impossible to find a publisher for the finished book.
Though an odd twist of fate, Beach agrees to publish Ulysses, launching her on a journey she never imagined taking, one that eventually turns her into one of the literary world’s greatest heroes.
So, who was Sylvia Beach?
Sylvia was born Nancy Woodbridge Beach in Baltimore, Maryland in 1887. She grew up primarily in New Jersey, and in high school she changed her name to Sylvia. Her father was a Presbyterian minister, and her mother had been raised in a missionary family in India. Both parents held very open world views, which they seemed to transmit to Sylvia. Sylvia first moved to Paris in 1901 when her father became a minister at the American Church. She fell in love with the famed city and its people and, though her family moved back to America, she would return to Paris at every chance. She eventually took up residence there. During World I, she performed relief work and later was a volunteer for the Red Cross in Serbia.
Photo credit: Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Sylvia approached managing her bookstore the same way she approached life: with eyes and arms wide open. In his book, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway wrote of Beach"
“Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s… She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” 
Sylvia kept few records and spent most of her time talking with her patrons. She enjoyed people and went out of her way to help them. The list of writers and artists she met and became friends with is a veritable list of who’s who in twentieth-century literature. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, and composers like George Antheil and Aaron Copland were regulars.
It wasn’t all about books, however. Sylvia fell in love with Paris bookstore owner Adrienne Monnier, and the two enjoyed a Roaring Twenties' social life. In Paris, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer individuals were free to live and love openly. Sylvia’s relationship with Monnier is a central theme in The Paris Bookseller.
In 1959, Sylvia wrote her memoir, Shakespeare and Company. She passed away in 1962. The following anecdote included on the current Shakespeare and Company’s website seems to tell us a lot about the kind of person Sylvia Beach was:
“Beach’s bookstore was open until 1941, when the Germans occupied Paris. One day that December, a Nazi officer entered her store and demanded Beach’s last copy of Finnegans Wake. Beach declined to sell him the book. The officer said he would return in the afternoon to confiscate all of Beach’s goods and to close her bookstore. After he left, Beach immediately moved all the shop’s books and belongings to an upstairs apartment. In the end, she would spend six months in an internment camp in Vittel, and her bookshop would never reopen.” 
Ernest Hemingway is said to have liberated her bookshop in 1944.  Whether that is true, it sure has a nice symmetry to it.
My takeaway in reading both fiction and nonfiction about Sylvia is that she was a woman with great drive, vision, and compassion. And she was the unsung hero behind a major book event during the twentieth century. Yet we know so little about her. While researching this article, I found it difficult to find biographical information about her.
How many other women have we missed giving credit to in history?
The Paris Bookseller
In my posts about books, I try to avoid spoilers. I prefer to encourage you to read them for yourself. But there are a couple of things worth noting as you consider picking up this title.
Kerri Maher did an excellent job researching content for The Paris Bookseller. She sticks to the facts and blends them into the story. The engaging way she does this makes you want to learn more about her characters and the era.
The novel is about Sylvia Beach and about her efforts to publish James Joyce’s novel, but frequent appearances of famed authors make it also about The Lost Generation living in Paris. Maher presented these iconic figures in a way that is more than name dropping. The snippets of their comments and visits, imagined by the author, are authentic and entertaining.
The themes in The Paris Bookseller are timeless, the first among them censorship. In the book and in real life, Sylvia Beach defied the ban against Ulysses and published it, then took things a step further and smuggled the book into the United States and England. Sylvia dubbed herself a “booklegger.” The word was a take on “bootlegger.” In 1917, Congress had passed the Volstead Act as the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When enough states ratified it a little over a year later, it prohibited alcohol in the United States. As you can see, Sylvia had a sense of humor.
Besides the Volstead Act, Sylvia was also up against the Comstock Law, which criminalized using the United States’ mail service to “corrupt public morals.” Also known as the “chastity law,” it forbade selling or distributing materials in the U.S. mail—or to import them from abroad—that could be used for contraception or abortion purposes. Ulysses fell into this category. History credits the wave of conservative laws like the Volstead Act and the Comstock Law for driving so many of America’s talented artists and writers to places like Paris, where their art could flourish unencumbered by restrictive norms and policies during the twenties.
Another important theme of The Paris Bookseller is love. In the first pages of the novel, Sylvia meets the enchanting Adrienne Monnier, who owns a bookstore. With Adrienne, Sylvia explores her sexuality while working her way through becoming a businesswoman. In America, Sylvia could never have lived so openly with another woman. Paris allowed her to do that, and more. She could surround herself in a vibrant, welcoming community.
And like modern women, the demands on Sylvia stretch her in dizzying directions, forcing her to choose between what is most important. She struggles to set aside time for herself at the eventual expense of her health. Who among us can’t relate to that?
I highly recommend The Paris Bookseller. An informative and entertaining read, it will leave you scouring the web for more details about Sylvia Beach, the era, and the causes this fascinating woman championed. The timing for reading this book couldn’t be better. February 2022 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Ulysses. It’s hard to comprehend that this many years later, books are still being banned.
Photo credit: Geoffrey Barker, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>,
via Wikimedia Commons
Sylvia’s is a story of triumph at a time when women had very little room to maneuver outside the stranglehold of tradition. At this link you’ll find some terrific images of Sylvia and of the old Shakespeare and Company. The pictures and anecdotes present a story unto themselves and make the past feel so much closer, so much more real. Shakespeare and Company remains open today, but in name only. The store is under different management. The owner, however, honors Sylvia as its founder. This type of nod to history warms my heart, and I'm adding the bookstore to my list of places to visit one day.
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.
N.J. (Nancy) Mastro
Francis Booth. “Sylvia Beach: Legendary Paris Bookseller and Publisher.” The Literary Ladies Guide. May 30, 2021. https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/literary-musings/sylvia-beach-legendary-paris-bookseller-and-publisher/
Rachel Potter. “Ulysses at 100: why it was banned for being obscene.” The Conversation. February 1, 2022. https://theconversation.com/ulysses-at-100-why-it-was-banned-for-being-obscene-176086
Samantha Barbas. “How the banning of Joyce’s Ulysses let to ‘the grandest obscenity case in the history of law and literature.” June 22, 2021. https://crimereads.com/banned-books-ulysses-joyce-morris-ernst/
Shakespeare and Company. “History: Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, 1919-1941.” Accessed February 8, 2022. https://shakespeareandcompany.com/35/history/95/sylvia-beachs-shakespeare-and-company-1919-1941
Mantex. “Sylvia Beach.” Accessed February 8, 2022. https://mantex.co.uk/sylvia-beach/
 Shakespeare and Company. “History: Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, 1919-1941.” Accessed February 8, 2022. https://shakespeareandcompany.com/35/history/95/sylvia-beachs-shakespeare-and-company-1919-1941