City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco
City Lights is an independent bookstore-publisher combination that specializes in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. It also houses the nonprofit City Lights Foundation, which publishes selected titles related to San Francisco culture. It was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin (who left two years later). Both the store and the publishers became widely known following the obscenity trial of Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg's influential poem Howl and Other Poems (City Lights, 1956). Nancy Peters started working there in 1971 and retired as executive director in 2007. In 2001, City Lights was made an official historic landmark. City Lights is located at the nexus of North Beach and Chinatown in San Francisco.
City Lights was the inspiration of Peter D. Martin, who relocated from New York City to San Francisco in the 1940s to teach sociology. He first used City Lights—in homage to the Chaplin film—in 1952 as the title of a magazine, publishing early work by such key Bay Area writers as Philip Lamantia, Pauline Kael, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Ferlinghetti himself, as “Lawrence Ferling.” A year later, Martin used the name to establish the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S., at the time an audacious idea.
The site was a tiny storefront in the triangular Artigues Building located at 261 Columbus Avenue, near the intersection of Broadway in North Beach. Built on the ruins of a previous building destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake, the building was designed by Oliver Everett in 1907 and named for its owners. City Lights originally shared the building with a number of other shops. It gradually gained more space whenever one of the other shops became vacant, and eventually occupied the entire building.
In 1953, as Ferlinghetti was walking past the Artigues Building, he encountered Martin out front hanging up a sign that announced a "Pocket Book Shop." He introduced himself as a contributor to Martin's magazine City Lights, and told him he had always wanted a bookstore. Before long he and Martin agreed to a partnership. Each man invested $500. Soon after they opened they hired Shig Murao as a clerk. Murao worked without pay for the first few weeks, but eventually became manager of the store and was a key element in creating the unique feel of City Lights. In 1955, Martin sold his share of the business to Ferlinghetti for $1000, and moved to New York and started New Yorker Bookstore, which specialized in cinema.
In 1971, Ferlinghetti persuaded Nancy Peters - who was working at the Library of Congress - to join in a project with him, after which she began full-time work at City Lights. She said:
- When I joined City Lights in 1971, and started working with Lawrence, it was clear that it had been very much a center of protest, for people with revolutionary ideas and people who wanted to change society. And when I first began working at the little editorial office up on Filbert and Grant, people that Lawrence had known through the whole decade of the '60s were dropping in all the time, like Paul Krassner, Tim Leary, people who were working with underground presses and trying to provide an alternative to mainstream media. This was a period of persecution, and FBI infiltration of those presses.
In 1984, the business was in a financial crisis and Peters became a co-owner of it. In 1999, with Ferlinghetti, she bought the building they worked in.
In 2001, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made City Lights an official historic landmark - the first time this had been granted to a business, rather than a building - citing the organization for "playing a seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation." It recognized the bookstore as "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 II literature."
The building itself, with its clerestory windows and small mezzanine balcony, also qualified as a city landmark because of its "distinctive characteristics typical of small commercial buildings constructed following the 1906 earthquake and fire." The landmark designation mandates the preservation of certain external features of the building and its immediate surroundings. Peters commented (referring to the effect of dotcom and computer firms), "The old San Francisco is under attack to the point where it's disappearing."
By 2003, the store had 15 employees. Peters estimated that the year's profits would be only "maybe a thousand dollars." In 2007, after 23 years as executive director, she stepped down from the post, which was filled by Elaine Katzenberger; Peters remained on the board of directors.<ref name=lynell/> Peters said of her work at City Lights:
- When I started working here we were in the middle of the Vietnam War, and now it's Iraq. This place has been a beacon, a place of learning and enlightenment.<ref name=lynell/>
As of 2008, City Lights is a general bookstore, specializing in fiction and poetry, cultural studies, world history, and politics. It offers three floors of new-release hardcovers and paperbacks from all major publishers, as well as a large selection of titles from smaller, independent publishers. City Lights is a member of the American Booksellers Association.
In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with his own Pictures of the Gone World, the first number in the Pocket Poets Series. This was followed in quick succession by Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Poems of Humor & Protest by Kenneth Patchen, but it was the impact of the fourth volume, Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg that brought national attention to the author and publisher.
City Lights Journal published poems of the Indian Hungry generation writers when the group faced police case in Kolkata. The group got worldwide publicity thereafter.
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.
In 1967 the publishing operation moved to 1562 Grant Avenue, Dick McBride ran this part of the business with his brother Bob McBride and Martin Broadley for several years.
In 1971, Nancy Peters joined Ferlinghetti as co-editor and publisher. He has praised her as "one of the best literary editors in the country."
Over the years, the press has published a wide range of poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, and works in translation. In addition to books by Beat Generation authors, the press publishes literary work by such authors as Charles Bukowski, Georges Bataille, Rikki Ducornet, Paul Bowles, Sam Shepard, Andrei Voznesensky, Nathaniel Mackey, Alejandro Murguía, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ernesto Cardenal, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Juan Goytisolo, Anne Waldman, André Breton, Kamau Daáood, and Rebecca Brown. Associated from the outset with radical left-wing politics and issues of social justice, City Lights has in recent years augmented its list of political non-fiction, publishing books by Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Howard Zinn, Cindy Sheehan, and Ward Churchill.
Ferlinghetti had heard Ginsberg read Howl in 1955 at the Six Gallery; the next day, he offered to publish it along with other shorter poems. William Carlos Williams — a longtime acquaintance of the New Jersey-born Ginsberg and himself a future Pocket Poet with a 1957 edition of his early modernist classic, Kora in Hell (1920) — was recruited for an introduction, perhaps to lend literary justification to Howl's sensational depictions of drug use and homosexuality. Prior to publication, Ferlinghetti had asked, and received, assurance from the American Civil Liberties Union that the organization would defend him, should he be prosecuted for obscenity.
Published in November 1956, Howl was not long in generating controversy. In March 1957, local Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee seized a shipment from England of the book's second printing on grounds of obscenity, but he was compelled to release the books when federal authorities refused to confirm his charge. But the troubles were just beginning, for in June of that year, local police raided City Lights Bookstore and arrested store manager Shigeyoshi Murao on the charge of offering an obscene book for sale. Ferlinghetti, then in Big Sur, turned himself in on his return to San Francisco. Both faced a possible $500 fine and a 6-month sentence. (Ginsberg was in Tangiers at the time, and not charged.) The ACLU posted bail, assigned defense counsel Albert Bendich to the case, and secured the pro bono services of famous criminal defense lawyer J. W. Ehrlich.
The municipal court trial, presided over by Judge Clayton W. Horn, ran from August 16 to September 3, 1957. The charges against Murao were dismissed since it couldn’t be proved that he knew what was in the book. Then, during the trial of Ferlinghetti, respected writers and professors testified for the defense. Judge Horn rendered his precedent-setting verdict, declaring that Howl was not obscene and that a book with “the slightest redeeming social importance” guarantees First Amendment protection. Horn's decision established the precedent that paved the way for the publication of such hitherto banned books as D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. The media attention resulting from the trial stimulated national interest, and, by 1958, there were 20,000 copies in print. Today there are over a million. Howl, in a sense, “made” City Lights, providing prestige almost unique for an independent press of its size. Ginsberg continued to publish his major books of poetry with the press for the next 25 years. Even after the publication by Harper & Row of his Collected Poems in 1980, he would continue his warm association with City Lights, which served as his local base of operations, for the rest of his life.
- List of San Francisco Designated Landmarks
Notes and references
- Official website
- Neighborhood map of City Lights Bookstore: MondoMap
- Landmark status likely for beatnik-era bookstore, a June 2001 CNN article
- And the Beats Go On, a June 2001 article from the San Francisco Chronicle
- Poetry Landmark: The City Lights Bookstore, from the website of the Academy of American Poets
- City Lights Pocket Poets checklist and the story behind the cover design, from a fan's personal website
- Upcoming events at City Lights
- Forthcoming books from City Lights Publishers
- LA Times article on Lawrence Ferlinghetti's announcement of the National Book Award nominations
- Guide to the records of City Lights Books at The Bancroft Library