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City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco
City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco | © debaird™ / Flickr
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An Introduction to San Francisco's Literature Legacy

Picture of Gwen Purdom
Updated: 21 March 2018
Few cities love reading more than San Francisco. While many places are home to luminary authors and distinctive writing styles, the City by the Bay might as well be known as The City by the Books for its close ties to groundbreaking scribes of all stripes and its passion for independent bookselling.

On any given day, different San Francisco neighborhoods are crowded with people tucked into quiet corners of community bookshops or typing away at their latest work in the corner coffee house. In fact, the city has been an inspiration and supportive home for writers since its early days. Here’s a quick look back at the first chapters of San Francisco’s literary legacy.

Long before the mid-century Beat revolution steered it toward the progressive, well-read reputation it boasts today, San Francisco may have kicked off its love affair with the written word when John Hamilton Still established the city’s first bookstore in Portsmouth Square in 1849 (there’s a plaque there to prove it). In the century and a half since, bookstores—independent ones, especially—have popped up and flourished across the area.

15 years after Still set up his business, the city hit another writerly milestone when a scrappy young journalist named Samuel Clemons moved to town. Calling him a journalist may be a stretch as Clemons had a thing for embellishing his stories, but the man who would go on to be known by his pen name—Mark Twain—did spend several months working for the Morning Call newspaper.

Reporting city business and theater reviews wasn’t the best fit for Clemons’ talents and he was eventually fired. But that firing might have been the thing that pushed him to follow a more fiction-focused career path. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he struggled in the city a while longer, then ended up submitting a story to a New York editor. It was a hit with readers and the author of classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was born right beside the bay.

City Lights
City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco | © debaird™ / Flickr

Fast forward nearly a century and San Francisco was facing a new bullet point on its typed-out timeline. 10 years after Madeline Gleason established what’s thought to be the first poetry fest in the U.S., the Festival of Modern Poetry, in the city in 1947, a judge’s verdict shined another national spotlight on the art form. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was found to be not obscene despite police and some more buttoned-up San Franciscans’ objections to the book of poetry. Historians cite this ruling with shifting the spirit of the city in a way. The fabled Beat Generation—including big name writers like Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder—were soon sparking an artistic renaissance around the bay and beyond.

It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of the still-famous City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Publishing, that had released Howl in the first place. Today, City Lights remains a destination for history buffs and bookworms, alike.

Golden Gate Park books
Books at Golden Gate Park’s Helen Russell Crocker Library of Horticulture in San Francisco | © Nate Bolt / Flickr

Many other authors have made names for themselves from within the San Francisco city limits over the years. From Jack London and his rustic adventures to Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, works from Bay Area writers span genres and generations.

Since it was unofficially launched in 1999, Litquake, an annual celebration of San Francisco literary culture, has hosted thousands of authors following in the famous footsteps of writers like Twain and Ginsberg. The festival’s website points out that the people of San Francisco have been shown to consume twice the national average of books, which makes perfect sense considering their city’s exceptionally storied history.