Classic SF

Beats, Books and Bohemia: The City Lights Story

By Paul Wilner

Literary lion Lawrence Ferlinghetti stands in front of City Lights, the North Beach bookstore he founded in 1953. He recently turned 100 years old and published a novel, Little Boy. (Stacy Lewis)
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For a bookstore, City Lights had an odd name (taken from a Charlie Chaplin movie) as well as an unusual location (North Beach) at a time when the neighborhood was leaning toward bohemia, but not quite there. Meanwhile, the “respectable’’ book establishments in town targeted affluent customers in Union Square.

But when Lawrence Ferlinghetti arrived in San Francisco in the 1950s, the poet and artist had a feeling that times were changing. In 1953, he met up with Peter Martin at the Artigues Building on Columbus Avenue, near Broadway, and the two men quickly bonded, each investing $500 to start City Lights.

They hired Shig Murao as a clerk (who worked without pay initially) and soon were off to the races, cultivating the store as a literary hang and home base for bearded poets, radical troublemakers and eccentrics reveling in the City’s longstanding radical tradition. Martin sold out his interest and moved to New York in 1955, leaving Ferlinghetti as proprietor. A creative with a surprising head for business, he launched the Pocket Poets series the same year with his own collection, Pictures of the Gone World. But it was the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956 that put the bookseller on the map, sparking an obscenity trial and international uproar that birthed the “Beat Generation,” a label Ferlinghetti disclaims. “Without Ginsberg, there would not have been a Beat Generation,’’ he says. “As for myself, I was never Beat. The Beat message was just one part of the continuing voice of dissent in America. It remains a valid critique of American life.”

“THE BEAT MESSAGE WAS JUST ONE PART OF THE CONTINUING
VOICE OF DISSENT IN AMERICA.”

— Lawrence Ferlinghetti

While bookstores have come and gone in the age of Amazon, City Lights is still alive and well. In March, Ferlinghetti celebrated his 100th birthday and no less an establishment house than Doubleday published his new novel, Little Boy, amid a slew of other milestone tributes.

Although the book touches on scenes of his youth, Ferlinghetti disavows the word “memoir,” which he dubs the “Gentile genre.” Instead, he describes it as “a stream of conscious memory that finally came all at once this year. Little Boy lives in the present. [He] has to remain innocent in order to survive, but also has to be fully informed of what is happening in the world.”

The celebrations for the poet included an open-house birthday party at City Lights, with concurrent programming at Café Zoetrope, Vesuvio’s and Canessa Gallery. Rena Bransten Gallery hosted an exhibit of Ferlinghetti’s paintings, with additional events at the San Francisco Public Library and the Italian Cultural Institute organized by Mauro Aprile Zanetti, his assistant and secretary. Ferlinghetti’s son, Lorenzo, attended the planting of an olive tree in the writer’s honor at Via Ferlinghetti on March 18. His health did not permit him to be there, but Zanetti recalled an “amazing ceremony, crowded by fans and an ocean of love under a special spring sun.’’

The store has a customer base from all over the world, and its economic security was sealed when Ferlinghetti and his then co-partner, Nancy Peters, bought the building in 1999.

“City Lights plays the same role it has for along time in San Francisco’s literary scene,’’ says Elaine Katzenberger, who succeeded Peters as executive director in 2007. “It’s a destination where writers come to meet each other and use [the store] as a launch pad — we have at least three reading events a week. And our publishing arm brings City Lights out of the actual physical space and into the rest of the world.’’

Asked about Ferlinghetti’s previous assertions that he was just a homebody, content to let Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others pursue life and fame on the road, Katzenberger laughs, responding, “Well, I think Lawrence may have a very selective memory there. All through the time I’ve been [with City Lights], and until recently, he’s been traveling around the world, going to poetry festivals where he made contacts and read manuscripts that we might eventually publish. But if you have a little business, you have to be there at least some of the time to keep things going.’’

“And as far as the Beats go, those guys were a good 10 or 15 years younger. He was already married and starting a family at the time when all those men were getting into cars, doing drugs or whatever they were into.’’

According to longtime City Lights book buyer Paul Yamazaki, “One of the reasons Lawrence, despite championing the work of the Beats, never proclaimed that he was part of them was that he saw that work as a stream in a larger river of resistance to urban culture that has been going on for hundreds of years.” The store has adapted to changing times, he says, through such moves as selling more books by gay and lesbian authors and people of color, and keeping their ears to the ground.

“We have a tremendous young staff to help keep us honest, and the readership we have here skews younger,” he explains. “The last five years have been our best in terms of gross sales.’’

Paradoxically, the growth of the internet may have even helped keep City Lights afloat in the digital age.

“We’ve noticed that books and bookstores are a cultural signifier for a younger generation looking for more authentic experience than what they are seeing online, whether that’s here at City Lights or at publishers like Gray Wolf, Grove and Black Cat or Transit Press in Oakland. … Lawrence and Nancy were true visionaries, not just in a literary sense, but institutionally, by virtue of buying the building. They anticipated what was to come and saved pennies, literally, so they had the funds.”

Yamazaki scoffs at Ferlinghetti’s notion that Ginsberg, not he, was a true visionary, declaring, “I don’t often dispute Lawrence but I dispute him on that. His longevity as a poet and painter and just by virtue of keeping City Lights going for coming on 70 years, is a testament to that.”

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