A couple of days ago at my own blog I briefly mentioned a new collection from Columbia University Press of the letters of Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Company, publisher of Ulysses, and champion of Moderns. The book offers the expected mix of straightforward business letters–
I enclose a letter that I have just received from the Japanese pirates of “Ulysses.” Will you please let Mr Joyce know and ask him what he would like me to do about it. They sent a cheque for 200 yen, which at about 5 francs a yen makes the measly sum of a thousand francs. If Mr Joyce is not able to attend to the matter just now there is no hurry.
–and little social notes–
Dear Miss Gertrude Stein,
Would you let me bring around Mr Sherwood Anderson of Poor White and Winesburg Ohio to see you say tomorrow evening Friday? He is so anxious to know you for he says you have influenced him ever so much & that you stand as such a great master of words.
–whose interest lies in their addressees and the glimpse they give of literary Paris in the period, while occasional gushing fan letters to writers such as Hemingway (“It is a very very fine achievement and places you right at the top.”) highlight Beach’s equivocal position, simultaneously a true, supportive friend and a bookseller who couldn’t help but profit by her association with such prominent writers.
Along those lines, the letter that has thus far stood out for me, a former bookseller, is a letter from sometime in 1940 about Shakespeare and Company. It’s an odd letter, addressed to Adrienne Monnier, who owned the French-language bookstore across the street and at that point had been Beach’s lover for years, but written with a casual formality that gives no hint of their intimacy–that in fact reads as if intended for publication. The letter’s charms, however, are sufficient to overcome any questions of tone. It is a response to a request from Monnier for advice on English-language writers, and after plumping for Shakespeare, Blake Melville, and De Quincey, Beach moves the discussion into her store:
[C]ross the rue de L’Odeon and enter into my library of the moment where I make suggestions to one or another of my subscribers, whom we refer to affectionately as ‘the Bunnies.’ The majority of my ‘Bunnies,’ I draw to your attention, know our literature perfectly. . . . I don’t hesitate to say, that it’s they who have given me precious advice on the subject. Often, a client requesting a book will reveal it to me for the first time. I’m by no means an academic, and during the years of the existence of my bookstore, I have been taught while teaching the students. I am, in sum, my most faithful ‘Bunny.’
From there, the letter quickly becomes an imaginary trip through the ideal bookstore, where the ideal bookseller meets the ideal customer:
–Oh Miss Beach, what do you suggest I take today?
–Well, you’ve already read all of Virginia Woolf, Joyce, Mansfield, Lawrence, D. H. and the Colonel [the latter being T. E. Lawrence], Huxley, Hemingway, Faulkner–and even Dos Passos. But wait–have you truly read all of these authors? Do you know, for example, “Classics in American Literature” by D. H. Lawrence, with its curious study of Melville and American Puritanism?–that would interest you, Adrienne; and you’re a lover of Joyce, but the lovely piece “Exiles” do you know it? (During this time you become impatient because the choice of the “Bunny” is left to fall without resistance on one of these titles and we’re in the process of searching the rack but the book isn’t in its place, naturally. So it goes.) . . . But here’s Madame de M.–what are you going to give me for Francoise? That’s easy I also have my favorite subscribers: those who like poetry.–I recall that Francoise worships Gerard Manley Hopkins but told me that she’d never read ‘Piers Ploughman’ (‘Piers Laboureur’) by William Langland which was often spoken of by Hopkins. All our poets talk to each other.
That is the pleasure of knowing your bookstore, the pleasure of–algorithms be damned–your bookstore knowing you, and it’s what I’m fortunate to have with my local bookstore 57th Street Books and the Seminary Co-op.
And I’m even luckier than that: this ghost bookseller, Sylvia Beach, has come through for me, mentioning a book later in that letter I didn’t know about but clearly should read:
To another subscriber I recommend without reservation, ‘Recollections of the Lake Poets,’ by De Quincey: this book full of gossip and I must say spitefulness about Wordsworth and his lake colleagues–which ‘debunks’ thm and they were not as happy as all that, it appears.
A recommendation from seventy years in the past? Now that’s bookselling!
Jeff Waxman, I’ll be needing that book, in whatever edition makes sense, as soon as you can locate it for me. Just please don’t call me “Bunny” when I come pick it up, okay?