Me and Sylvia Beach

woman sitting next to mural of Sylvia Beach and James JoyceOf course I’ve never met her in person. But she’s got to be up there on my  list of esteemed literary women- along with Maya Angelou, Margaret Mitchell, Erma Bombeck, Judy Bloome, Sonia Sotomayor, Natalie Goldberg, Georgia Heard, and Ursula Le Guin. Kind of an eclectic list. And Ms. Beach wasn’t known for her writing fame.

She was a small but evidently feisty woman who assisted many emerging writers – James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Andre Gide, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, D. H. Lawrence.

When I was looking for places to visit for my first trip to Paris in 1998, I discovered Shakespeare and Co., the bookshop opened by Sylvia Beach on the Left Bank in 1919. Her motivation – to provide a meeting place and bookshop for English speaking writers, expats, and artists. There was a growing market for English translations. What intrigued me was her personal commitment for two decades to champion new writers. She published James Joyce when he was banned in the US. And her bookshop became a hub for literary events.

Visiting the Paris bookshop in 1998 and then again in 2014, I fell under the spell – the place is stuffed with books, old photos, brochures, a bulletin board overcrowded with notices for rooms, editors, writers and the symbolic single bed up in the garret where a traveling writer could find a bed for a night, or nights. I could imagine the excitement. I would have been one of those college students who vied to work there (often for next to nothing) to be around that talent and energy.

Looking for places to visit on our recent road trip to Oregon, my sister reminded me of the The Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon. The hotel pays homage to Ms. Beach with books, rooms themed to writers, and a third floor reading room which I heard is complete with fireplace, hot cocoa, and books! I have vowed to stay there on my next visit.

Not sure of the nexus for my excitement I just went with it. We had dinner there after a short talk with the charming desk clerk about the hotel’s history. So much so I gushingly gave a copy of my memoir, Thinking of Miller Place, to her for the owners,  and took a cherished photo of me and Sylvia Beach.

A colleague tells me Shakespeare and Co. now has locations on the upper West Side and the Village in NYC. If this is true, I think there’s a trip East on my horizon.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.


2 Comments

  1. joanne sabates

    Fell under the spell………..why do writers marvel at those who manifest thoughts into words? What separates them from those who walk into a book store and see over-priced new, or molding old books and not the artists whose thoughts lie printed on the pages? Perhaps writing is simply a way one entertains oneself; and sometimes, conversely, others are entertained in the process. Perhaps writers are simply storytellers descended from the ancients Greeks who sang their tales to an audience. Or maybe they’re social scientists that marvel over human nature and, by preserving their stories in print, extend life itself. I get the ‘spell’ effect, Ethel; loved reading the thread of events……….

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Yes, all of those are part of writing for me. And there’s more, I have to find the section in Oliver Sacks’ ON THE MOVE where he talks about storytelling. It’s a wonderful jumping-off spot for why I tell stories- both written and oral.

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