City Lights may well have the richest literary heritage of any independent bookstore in the United States.
Inhale, and breathe in the history of Beat literature.
City Lights is, arguably, where it all began. In San Francisco. It was founded in 1953 as a bookstore-publishing house by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is still alive and kicking in San Francisco and college professor Peter D. Martin, who is not as well-known and who might or might not still be alive. It was the first all-paperback bookstore in the country, way back then. Enter its portals now and be transported–both intellectually and back in time to another era.
True for me– entering a great bookstore and browsing have always uplifted me.
Old straight-back wooden chairs and a few tables are scattered around City Lights, encouraging readers to stop and sit with a book. They aren’t the plush furniture that we find today in the (now rare) brick-and-mortar bookstores. You’ve got to be really committed to what you’re reading to sit for longer than a few minutes.
Which is why most of us stand.
The selection of books is eclectic, the best I’ve seen anywhere. And there are nooks, crannies, cubbyholes and a little upstairs and a little downstairs, too.
Ferlinghetti was the guy who published Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, whose opening lines I still love and can hear Ginsberg:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness….”
If you haven’t heard Ginsberg read Howl, here you go: HOWL read by Ginsberg. Powerful. I would have loved to have heard him in person. I was just half a generation too young.
After our visit to City Lights the other day a group of us that included a poet and playwright had lunch in North Beach. Discussing Kerouac, we agreed that he’s another Beat writer whose rhythm and meter could be hard to read and that many of his books are better “heard” than read. I can hear On the Road in my head still after listening to it “on tape” years ago as I drove up the East coast. Hours and hours of it. Unabridged, almost 13 hours. That’s a lot of Kerouac.
“I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”
Yes, I can still hear that ending in my head. But still, I love reading Kerouac on the page, too.
Let’s not forget: City Lights was also a hotbed of progressive politics and literature.
It takes many visits to notice everything. At first, you’re distracted by the many fabulous books on display just begging to be paged through. But you also want to look around at all the little political and literary nuggets painted on the wall or hung like posters.
Few places steeped in literary history remain. In fact, fewer and fewer bookstores remain. I hope to God it’s always there, a testament to a long-gone day and time and to a unique breed of iconoclasts.