Her father was a Presbyterian pastor and his work took the family to Paris in 1901. Beach loved Paris, and went to live there permanently in 1916 after war work nursing. With her friend Adrienne Monnier she founded a bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in November 1919, which became a focus for Americans. The bookshop became famous after it published James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, as a result of Joyce's inability to get an edition out in English-speaking countries.
The bookshop was in difficulties throughout the depression of the 1930s, and was kept afloat by the generosity of her circle of friends, including Bryher. She was interned during World War II. The shop was symbolically liberated by Ernest Hemingway in person in 1944 but never re-opened.
In 1959 she wrote a memoir of the inter-war years. She remained in Paris until her death.