Beginnings Profiles Shakespeare and Company’s Sylvia Beach Whitman

Last Decem­ber, we fea­tured the doc­u­men­tary Por­trait of a Book­store as an Old Man in trib­ute to its recent­ly passed sub­ject, not­ed book­seller and eccen­tric George Whit­man. His store Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny has sent a bea­con from Paris’ Left Bank to writ­ers and bib­lio­philes the world over for six­ty years, and it con­tin­ues to do so under Whit­man’s daugh­ter, Sylvia Beach Whit­man. While prac­ti­cal­ly every book­store in busi­ness today takes pains to set itself apart as some­thing “more than just a book­store,” Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny has been hip to that plan since its incep­tion, offer­ing a read­ing library, Sun­day tea, a sto­ried makeshift writ­ers’ colony, and a taste of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry’s expa­tri­ate-filled Parisian lit­er­ary scene. Read­ers well-versed in the his­to­ry of that scene will notice a clever bit of attempt­ed pre­des­ti­na­tion on George Whit­man’s part in nam­ing his daugh­ter after Sylvia Beach, the Amer­i­can founder of anoth­er famous book­store called Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny, which oper­at­ed from 1921 to 1941.

You can learn more about Sylvia Beach Whit­man — much more than you’d expect to in under four min­utes — from art-world doc­u­men­tar­i­an Chiara Clemente’s pro­file of her on the Sun­dance Chan­nel’s doc­u­men­tary series Begin­nings. Whit­man remem­bers her days as Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny’s offi­cial mop­pet, when its writ­ers in res­i­dence — her “hun­dreds of broth­ers and sis­ters” — would tell her cus­tom-made bed­time sto­ries before flop­ping down on their own beds built atop the book piles. She’s since grown up and gone on to do big things with the store, includ­ing start­ing a bien­ni­al lit­er­ary fes­ti­val which has brought in the likes of Jung Chang, Paul Auster, David Hare, and Perse­po­lis author Mar­jane Satrapi, who fea­tures in a Begin­nings short of her own (see above). When not hard at work on a page of com­ic art, Satrapi lights up a cig­a­rette and remem­bers how, due to the last forty years of con­stant polit­i­cal churn in her native Iran, no Iran­ian of her gen­er­a­tion has lived any­thing like a “nor­mal” life. The series also cov­ers the ear­ly lives and first inspi­ra­tions of cre­ators includ­ing shoe design­er Chris­t­ian Louboutin, Blue Hill chef Dan Bar­ber, and… well, you can’t describe Yoko Ono as any­thing but Yoko Ono. But you can watch her episode of Begin­nings on and hear about her strug­gle to find her way to the avant-garde after emerg­ing from her fam­i­ly’s artis­tic tra­di­tion­al­ism. H/T New York­er

Relat­ed con­tent:

Remem­ber­ing George Whit­man, Own­er of Famed Book­store, Shake­speare & Com­pa­ny

Spike Jonze Presents a Stop Motion Film Set at Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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