City Lights: The Bay Area's Flagship Bookstore

By David Grayson

San Francisco is well known as one of the great literary cities of the world, home to many renowned writers and breeding ground for new literary movements. Less known, the City and the Bay Area also claim what is probably the greatest collection of bookstores in the country. As the ranks of independent bookstores in other cities (including New York) have been decimated by the "megastore" chains, the Bay Area has retained an impressive array of feisty independent bookstores.

Of this literary coterie, none has a more renowned pedigree than City Lights in North Beach. As any writer will attest, City Lights is more than a bookstore: at its heart, it is an idea.

City Lights was founded in 1953, by then unknown poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin, as the nation's first all-paperback bookstore. Two years later, Ferlinghetti launched a publishing house as a natural step in his commitment to sponsoring avant garde writing. City Lights Publishers was inaugurated with the release of Pictures of the Gone World, a collection of Ferlinghetti's poetry. This landmark book was the first of the Pocket Poets book series. In the coming decades, the Pocket Poets series would release many milestones of modern American poetry, including Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara, books by Robert Bly and Kenneth Rexroth, and Howl by Allen Ginsberg.

Published in 1956 as number four in the series, Howl quickly generated a whirl of controversy. Printed in England and shipped to San Francisco, a portion of the second printing was seized by customs under the charge of obscenity. Though the books were released by customs, Ferlinghetti and bookstore manager Shigeyoshi Murao were then arrested by the San Francisco police for publishing and selling obscene material. City Lights won the ensuing celebrated court case, thereby setting a precedent for works like Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover.

Stacey Lewis
and Paul Yamazaki

City Lights continues this tradition of activism today. City Lights Publishers is still at the forefront of publishing progressive books. According to Stacey Lewis, Director of Publicity and Marketing for the publisher, "We're always on top of these issues before other people start talking about them." For example, Lewis notes that the anthology, Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, was one of the first books to critique the impact of computers and the Internet on our lives.

Paul Yamazaki, book buyer for the store, says that "what distinguishes us today is our commitment to, and knowledge of, the small press and university press." The bookstore stocks a cornucopia of small and university press titles, where the bulk of progressive writing is published. Yamazaki declares: "It is the tradition we grew out of and is our mainstay."

City Lights doesn't limit its activism to publishing and selling books, however. In a recent endeavor, Ferlinghetti in 1988 won approval by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to rename twelve streets after famous authors and artists who lived and worked in the City. The small alley bordering City Lights was renamed Kerouac Street, and other streets were named after William Saroyan, Dashiell Hammett and fellow Beat poet Bob Kaufman. (Ferlinghetti was later honored by the Board and has a North Beach street named after him).
A visit to City Lights brings to life its commitment to liberalism and its dramatic history. The bookstore sits on Kerouac Street, next door to Vesuvios, a Beat hangout in the fifties. Across the four lanes of Columbus Street sits Saroyan Alley, home to another Beat watering hole: Specs 12 Adler Museum and Cafe. Filling the windows of the bookstore and the offices above are best-selling books and posters recalling leftist battles of the past.
Like any respectable bookshop, City Lights is dense and labyrinthine, with three floors of books and narrow aisles. One corner of the store that must be visited is "Little Press Alcove," where the dozens of poetry chapbooks and small literary magazines to which Yamazaki referred jam the bookshelves. Downstairs you'll find the sections for books on politics and history, but with quite a different system of nomenclature. Alongside the usual rubrics of Political Science and Sociology you can peruse not only Green Politics and People's History, but also Muckraking, Anarchism, and Class War - each section very well stocked.

The heart of the store is upstairs in the poetry room. While chain bookstores normally set aside one small bookcase for poetry - with the old standards of Byron and Shelley - the City Lights poetry room is an embodiment of modern poetry history. The collection, which Yamazaki estimates at 4,000 titles, fills a large room, with every American poet (major and minor) and every country imaginable represented. In contrast to the provincial collection of most bookstores, City Lights has a strong collection of international poetry, especially Spanish, French, and Third World poetry. At the center of the room is a table with new releases, where one can get a pulse of upcoming American poetry. And, of course, there is the collection of Beat poetry, where you will invariably find browsing a few young men sporting berets and goatees.

Because of its selection and its reputation, City Lights is competing favorably against both the chain bookstores and online booksellers. Lewis says, "City Lights is doing really well." She explains that since the bookstore "is such a destination for people coming to San Francisco," its sales have remained healthy.

If you're lucky, while browsing alongside aspiring bards among the stacks, you might run into Ferlinghetti, the old Beat master, himself. Thank him for creating such an important institution, and take note of how he wears his beret.

Information: City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, 261 Columbus Avenue San Francisco, CA 94133
415.362.8193 (phone) 415.362.4921 (fax),
Hours: Open daily, 10am - midnight.