The Letters of Sylvia Beach
by Sylvia Beach
Columbia University Press
$29.95 List Price
The history of independent bookstores is littered with fallen monuments. Manhattan’s Eighth Street Bookshop counted the Beats and Auden as customers, but it was long gone when I moved to New York in 1992. In the past several years, we’ve lost the wonderful Dutton’s in Los Angeles; the Trover Shop, once an institution on Capitol Hill; and Cody’s in Berkeley (since when aren’t even that city’s good leftist citizens able to keep an independent bookstore open?). There is something inherently ephemeral about the trade, and the obstacles—indifferent publics, high rents, minuscule profit margins—are too many to list. It’s not just Amazon or the e-reader; there was always something putting the independents out of business, and whatever our sentiments, the world does not owe bookstores a living.
Love of books has certainly kept little shops going, but there is more to it than that. The Letters of Sylvia Beach suggests it’s sheer cussedness. The patron saint of independent booksellers everywhere and the spunky proprietress of Shakespeare and Company, the famed Left Bank bookshop, Beach was a one-woman clearinghouse for literary modernism, “a culture hero of the avant-garde,” as Kerri Walsh writes in her fine introduction to this collection. Beach most famously published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, when it was effectively banned in the United States and Britain after a series of obscenity prosecutions. She could count as friends an ABC of Jazz Age writers: Fitzgerald, H. D., Hemingway, Pound, and Stein, among others.
For all her association with modernism, Beach was never in thrall