Shakespeare and Company: The world’s most loved bookshop?

In a series that highlights a momentous year in three cities, Dr James Fox reveals why Paris in 1928 was so exciting for artists, writers and musicians.

In 1928 around 40,000 Americans were living in Paris – and more were arriving every day. The city offered a glamorous, cheap and liberated alternative to the austere, Prohibition-era United States.

While the Americans in Paris spent their evenings listening to music; in the days they hung out at a remarkable English-language bookshop founded by a young American named Sylvia Beach.

In this clip, Dr James Fox asks the current owner, Sylvia Whitman to describe the Shakespeare and Company of 1928.

“It was really a mecca for all of the great writers of the day… Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound… these were all people who would drop in.”

But perhaps Sylvia’s most enthusiastic customer was a young writer named Hemingway. The hard-drinking journalist had come to Paris in 1921 to transform himself into a great novelist and by 1928 he was working on his most celebrated work, A Farewell to Arms. He became firm friends with the Shakespeare and Company owner in a relationship that lasted until his death 40 years later.

Paris 1928, episode 2 of Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities screens on Saturday 17 October on BBC World News.  

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