Breathing in the Beats at City Lights

March 20, 2014

City Lts bwCity 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 Lts archwayCity 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.

Abandon despairTrue 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.

City Lt CAC2 rds City Lt joe readsWhich 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.

upstairs beat lit

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….”

Steps poetry rm longIf 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.

Via Ferlinghett

Let’s not forget: City Lights was also a hotbed of progressive politics and literature.

City Lts democracy CU

 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.

free the press from

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.


8 comments on “Breathing in the Beats at City Lights
  1. Doreen McGettigan says:

    I hope it is there forever too. It sounds amazing.

  2. Marci Rich says:

    I love City Lights. Whenever I’m in San Francisco I make the pilgrimage. Thanks for starting my day with a virtual visit!

  3. Diane says:

    Wow! I must put this on my places to visit list! We have one independent book store left in Edmonton. Audreys. But even that store doesn’t quite compare . . .

  4. Awesome! I haven’t been there in years, and you make me want to go back now!

  5. Karen says:

    It was one of the highlights of my last trip to San Francisco–that and the house where the Grateful Dead hung out. 🙂 Thanks for the lovely reminder!

  6. Looks amazing! Reminds me a little of the Strand in NYC.

  7. Puneet Kumar says:

    Book shop is the finest place where I like to spent my holiday. Near my home there was a big book-shop which is closed now. I miss my those days. your pictures and words offer me joy. Thanks.. !

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