A place where people come to throw inhibitions to the wind, eat unbeatable pho and fajitas, and accidentally stumble across speakeasies hosting anything from a zine launch to a moustache-waxing contest, you can’t leave San Francisco without a good story. Weird and wonderful, the city has never lost its sense of rebelliousness and fun.
North Beach boasts all of this and more. Originally a working class Italian neighbourhood, the area is nicknamed Little Italy. It is both a destination for tourists and a favourite of locals, offering vintage saloons, fantastic views, trattorias, strip clubs, high rises, and one of America’s greatest treasures: City Lights bookstore.
In 1953, sociologist Peter D. Martin and poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti teamed up to build a bastion of new thinking and revolutionary literature. City Lights was to become an inordinate success. Originally sharing Artigues Building with several other shops, the business expanded over the years and now occupies the entire building, also comprising a printing press and literary foundation. Above the entrance hangs a sign with an order: ‘Abandon despair all ye who enter’.
It was three years after opening that City Lights – now something of an institution – would be propelled into the spotlight, making global headlines and securing its place in the literary hall of fame. Ferlinghetti took over the business in 1955 and established a modest but daring publishing house as part of the enterprise. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956) was released as the fourth title in their $1 Pocket Poet series and proved so provocative that the poet and City Lights’ store manager were together sued for disseminating obscene literature. The highly publicised case tested the American Constitution and hit the nerve of the nation.
Ginsberg was a key member of the Beat generation – an avant garde group established in New York which gained an impressive following with its move to San Francisco. They were marked as eccentric hedonists, fighters of literary tradition and leaders of the counter-culture – the sex, drugs and rock and roll era of contemporary literature. Two other renowned examples of Beat literature are Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959). Both Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s publications were recently made into feature films, emphasizing their continued relevance today.
The controversy surrounding Howl had the opposite effect to that desired by conservatives; not only did the court drop the charges but the furore surrounding the book’s release ignited impassioned debates about freedom of speech and inspired a renewed abhorrence of censorship. The case was groundbreaking; the court ruling lead to the subsequent release of long-banned books such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, some of the 20th century’s greatest writing. All of this struck a chord with America’s youth. Busloads of fans paid homage to City Lights, and the legacy of the Beats now surrounds the shop with many of the streets nearby renamed after a number of its poets. Since 1955, City Lights has published over 200 titles – poetry and prose (fiction and nonfiction) – and continues to release around 12 books a year.
The store still retains a subversive attitude, encouraging visitors to ask questions and browse for as long as they like, wilfully acting against the commercial norms and presenting itself more like a library, or ‘home’ as Ginsberg called it. Each floor is crammed with books and comfortable seats. The nonfiction basement was where the Beat and other poets, progressive thinkers and authors would meet, and it is probably also the best spot to hide away and snuggle up with a book in the whole city. Be warned though, anyone intending to stay the night will be chucked out at midnight when the store shuts. It’s mainly political prose down here, divided up into challenging themes like ‘Commodity Aesthetics’ and ‘Stolen Continents’.
The ground floor stocks new-release hardbacks and quality fiction from across the globe. You’ll also find magazines, journals, art books, City Lights publications and titles from small independent and specialty presses here. Helpful notes on the shelves give reviews from the staff on their favourite picks and the employees are always on hand to tell you more, each equipped with a different set of expertise.
Upstairs on the mezzanine level is the poetry room, offering up over 1,000 poetry books by everyone from Auden to Zukofsky. Naturally, there’s also an area dedicated to the Beats. Up to four events a week are held up here including readings, book parties and signings. This floor used to be the home of the founder of Vesuvio, the bohemian bar next door which also regularly holds poetry evenings and is known for its great jazz. Its only downside is the stairs which can prove pretty dangerous after one too many.
The only downside is City Lights accessibility, or the lack thereof. Up a steep hill and a good mile away from the nearest MUNI or BART stop, its not the easiest place to get to. But the effort is well worth it, and the store’s location holds a rather beautiful poetic resonance: its triangular plot sits at a cultural crossroads, with Chinatown lining one side and Little Italy facing the other.
In 2001, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors proclaimed City Lights a local landmark for seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the States, championing First Amendment protections, and for publishing and giving voice to writers and artists everywhere.
Despite all economic odds, City Lights continues to be an unstoppable force and a permanent fixture in the landscape. Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of its book: read, think, write, debate and dissent.
CITY LIGHTS BOOKS, 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA, USA, +14153628193