On Nov. 17, 1919, a young American woman named Sylvia Beach opened a small bookstore and lending library on the Rue de l'Odeon in Paris: Shakespeare and Company, the only bookstore in the city devoted exclusively to English-language literature.
Its shelves and tables were packed with works by William Blake, Henry James, Herman Melville, Sherwood Anderson and Ezra Pound, among others. Magazine racks contained the best of the English and U.S. periodicals; these included Dial, Nation, the New Republic and a now-obscure literary magazine called--Playboy.
With its wealth of titles and a cozy ambiance that encouraged patrons to linger, Shakespeare and Company soon became a popular gathering place for an impressive array of the era's most influential writers and artists.
This weekend at Upchurch-Brown Booksellers in Laguna Beach, which could turn out to be a local version of Beach's legendary store, county readers have a chance to learn about that group. The event commemorates her birth on March 14, 1887.
The celebration begins tonight from 7 to 10 p.m. and continues Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. Readings and discussions will be given by a group of scholars that include UCI English professors James L. McMichael and Margot C. Norris; Dickran L. Tashjian, professor of comparative culture at UCI, and Noel Riley Fitch, author of "Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation," a 1983 nominee for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history.
According to Fitch, Beach provided a ripe intellectual center for the exchange and development of ideas among the leading U.S., English, Irish and French artists.
"If she wouldn't have provided a focal point, their effects may have just been scattered," added Robert Brown, co-owner with Mary Upchurch of the Laguna Beach store.
At any time one might have seen the likes of Andre Gide, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, T.S. Eliot or Pound himself poking among the volumes or engaged in conversation.
Beach was willing to take more chances than anyone with these artists, who were at once brilliant and dissolute, charming to a fault one moment and downright mean the next. She was devoted to this group, especially to a struggling writer named James Joyce.
"She was like the mother protector of the group," Brown said. "She gave them support when they needed it. She gave them money when they needed it. She was the one who published 'Ulysses' when no one else would touch it."
Beach had her share of disillusionment. She parted ways with Joyce, who she concluded merely used people for his own ends.
Still, Brown said, without the influence of Beach "that whole genre wouldn't have had an impact on the world."