(From 2012) I ended up in the most famous bookstore in the world, City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue, near Broadway, North Beach, San Francisco. I actually bought a book. But the place is really “bigger” than its books. It was the home of a stream of consciousness unrivaled in the past century, perhaps even more so. But why?
A man by the name of Peter D. Martin moved from New York to San Francisco in the 1940s. The City Lights name originated in an old 1952 Charlie Chaplin film. Martin used it as the title for a magazine, for writers like himself, as well as the famous Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In another year, he used the City Lights name to start the first all paperback bookstore in the United States.
The story goes that in 1953, Mr. Ferlinghetti walked past the storefront at 261 Columbus Avenue. Luck would have it that Mr. Martin was hanging a sign out front, saying “Pocket Book Shop.” Mr. Ferlinghetti eventually formed a partnership with Mr. Martin, and “City Lights” was born.
More remarkably, the partners each put up $500, and hired Shig Murao as a clerk. After working at first without any pay, Mr. Murao became not only the store manager but the man responsible for the “feel” of the store. And I can tell you first hand, the store still has the same fell today as it did during the heyday of the Beat generation, though Mr. Ferlinghetti claims to be a “bohemian of an earlier generation.”
The store has always served as a center of protest, for people who really want to change society. People like Tim Leary and Paul Krassner hung out there. That seems a long way to 2001, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made City Lights an official historic landmark. Their statement says it all, “a landmark that attracts thousands of book lovers from all over the world because of its strong ambiance of alternative culture and arts”, and it acknowledged City Lights Publishers for its “significant contribution to major developments in post-World War 2 literature.”
In 1955, Mr. Ferlinghetti also started publishing as City Lights Publishers. Apart from Ginsberg’s seven collections, a number of the early Pocket Poets volumes brought out by Ferlinghetti have attained the status of classics, including True Minds by Marie Ponsot (1957), Here and Now by Denise Levertov (1958), Gasoline (1958) by Gregory Corso, Selected Poems by Robert Duncan (1959), Lunch Poems (1964) by Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems (1967) by Philip Lamantia, Poems to Fernando (1968) by Janine Pommy Vega, Golden Sardine (1969) by Bob Kaufman, and Revolutionary Letters (1971) by Diane di Prima.
His “Howl and Other Poems” is a story in itself. For just one day, today, let’s just say it was a marvelous step back in time.