Vienna Honors Sylvia Beach

Shakespeare & Co. Vienna celebrates Sylvia Beach, Publisher of James Joyce and Literary Entrepeneur, at the 90th anniversary

Sylvia Beach in her shop Shakespeare & Co. on rue de l’Odeon | Photo courtesy of John Baxter

It was raining when I arrived at Shakespeare & Company’s street fair on May 7, so the festivities celebrating Sylvia Beach were over. But no matter—because I was there for the books.

Secreted away on a picturesque lane in the heart of the Ruprechtsviertel, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Shakespeare & Company at Sterngaße 2 has the cozy, been-there-forever feeling that devoted readers adore in bookshops.  I furled my umbrella and made my way through the warren of tome-filled shelves to a room in the back for a chat with Gerti Perlaki, who helps her son and daughter, Guy and Sheila, run the shop. We talked about the family’s vision for the bookstore, founded in Vienna in 1981 and run by the Perlakis since 2005, and specializing in English-language books of all varieties. It also, as the name suggests, honors the original Shakespeare & Company, the famed Parisian bookshop founded in 1919 by the plucky American literary entrepreneur Sylvia Beach.

“We have a responsibility to live up to this name,” says Gerti, “and we’re working on it hard.”

Sylvia Beach (1887-1962) led the kind of life that many booklovers fantasize about —not only did she run a bookstore and lending library (reading for a living!), but she also created a vibrant meeting-place for writers and poets, who gathered daily in her shop to read and debate the latest books, share and critique each other’s work, argue and complain, joke and gossip. Beach’s bookstore was the nucleus of a creative community that included many of the greatest writers of the Lost Generation, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway.  Oh, and she also published James Joyce’s unsettling masterpiece, Ulysses.

How did this daughter of a Presbyterian pastor from New Jersey end up at the center of cultural life on the Seine’s bohemian Left Bank during its peak years of literary and artistic ferment?  At a time when most young women—including those with higher education—were groomed for marriage and motherhood, Sylvia Beach decided to pursue other dreams.

Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century was particularly attractive to women who wanted to lead independent lives, especially if they had artistic or intellectual aspirations.  The 2000 documentary film Paris Was a Woman, directed by Greta Schiller, conveys the alluring freedom of 1920s Paris, where women could be first of all human beings, and not just dutiful daughters or compliant appendages of their husbands.

The Beach family spent a few years in Paris when Sylvia was a teenager, and she returned in 1917 to study French literature. It was the height of World War I; she also spent time volunteering on farms in the French countryside and with the Red Cross in Serbia. Almost by chance she stumbled across La Maison des Amis des Livres, the Left Bank bookshop of Adrienne Monnier, a Frenchwoman a few years Beach’s senior. The two women shared a deep love of literature and developed an instant friendship that turned into a lifelong partnership in both business and love.

Monnier is credited with introducing the lending library to France (which especially benefited women, who often had no money of their own with which to buy books), and turning the bookseller’s trade into a culturally and intellectually influential profession.

Beach quickly fell in with the literary circle surrounding Monnier’s bookshop, and before long she got the idea of opening a branch of the French shop in New York. However, the women soon realized that New York was too expensive, and as Beach wrote in her 1956 memoir, Shakespeare & Company, “right before our eyes my bookshop turned into an American one in Paris.”

Bankrolled by her mother, Beach opened her shop in 1919.

“The French,” she noted, “were very eager to get hold of our new writers.” But the bookshop soon developed a reputation across the Atlantic, where hordes of Americans were keen to visit Paris, attracted by its artistic culture, libertine atmosphere and cheap prices. “The news of my bookshop, to my surprise, soon spread all over the United States,” Beach wrote, “and it was the first thing the pilgrims looked up in Paris.”

I was hoping to find something similar at Vienna’s Shakespeare & Company: an informal headquarters for English-language writers in Vienna, as well as a place to interact with Austrian readers of English. The potential is certainly there; Gerti Perlaki would like to host more readings and develop new ways to attract visitors to the shop, but she admits that the family needs to focus its energies on running the business.  Perhaps, I mused, what the shop needs is a dedicated volunteer with a knack for guerrilla marketing to host a salon and help organize literary events….

“We will be celebrating Bloomsday on June 16,” Gerti was telling me, pulling me out of my reverie. This is the date on which Leopold Bloom went about his business in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Although Bloomsday is traditionally marked by marathon readings of Ulysses, the Perlakis are inviting readers and writers to come to Shakespeare & Company all day long and read aloud whatever they like. Booklovers can read from their favorites, and writers are welcome to read their own work. On Bloomsday the shop will also unveil a new sign, a copy of the 1981 original featuring a slightly psychedelic portrait of Shakespeare by the Austrian artist Robert Zeppl-Sperl, who used to live upstairs from the shop.

Sylvia Beach felt a special affinity for Joyce and his writing, and she did everything she could to support his controversial works.  When his pioneering novel Ulysses was banned for obscenity in the U.S. and Britain, Beach took it upon herself to publish it in 1922, facing nearly insurmountable difficulties detailed in her memoir. Once Ulysses was in print, Beach helped her customers disguise copies in innocuous dust jackets so they could sneak them into England and America; if discovered, the banned books would be confiscated. Hemingway also enlisted a friend, Bernard Braverman (whom Beach called “Saint Bernard”), to smuggle Ulysses into the United States from Canada. Braverman received a shipment of books in Windsor, Ontario, and then took the daily ferry to Detroit with one or two copies stuffed down his pants. The U.S.-Canadian border was teeming with smugglers—it was Prohibition—but Braverman was probably the only one sneaking in books.

Following Federal Judge John Woolsey’s 1933 ruling overturning the ban, Joyce signed with Random House to produce the novel’s first legal American edition. As the original publisher, Beach should have been paid to relinquish her rights to the novel, but she was not.  Publishing Ulysses had bankrupted Beach, yet Joyce never helped her, even when her shop struggled to stay open during the Depression.

“I understood from the first that, working with or for James Joyce, the pleasure was mine,” Beach wrote; “the profits were for him.”

For over 20 years, Shakespeare & Company was at the heart of Anglo-American literary culture in Paris. In 1941, a German officer threatened to confiscate Beach’s stock, so overnight, she moved out all the books and closed the shop. In 1944, Hemingway personally “liberated” the shop, but Beach never reopened it.  In 1951, another American, George Whitman, opened an English-language bookshop in Paris that inherited the name of Shakespeare & Company and still serves as an important literary hub today.

Vienna’s Shakespeare & Company could share more than just a name with its Parisian predecessors. Bookselling is a difficult business even in the best of times, and one suspects that creating a kind of literary salon – a Kaffeehaus? – of readers and writers could help the shop find its niche in today’s world of narrow profit margins, chain stores and the Internet.

Shakespeare & Company’s back rooms will undergo renovations this year, and Gerti has a vision of making the space more comfortable, with an upper gallery along the back wall, but she insists that the shop must feel unchanged. The Perlakis want to maintain Shakespeare & Company’s cozy atmosphere that has appealed to book lovers since its opening 29 years ago, so that, as Gerti notes, “you can go into our bookshop and browse through the books and have a good time—and hold your book in your hands.”

Because in the end, it’s always about the books… Or is it?  Wouldn’t it be great if, one day, it could also be about the writers?

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