I had the chance to be across the country and in San Francisco for a few days this week, and I immediately went to City Lights Books in the North Beach section of the city. If not the most famous bookstore in America, it is certainly one of them.
City Lights was founded by Peter D. Martin and named after the politico/literary magazine he had founded named City Lights in 1953. It was the very first paperback book store in the United States. As he was hanging the sign on the store at 291 Columbus Avenue, Larry Ferlinghetti walked past and asked to be a partner. Both Martin and Ferlinghetti invested $500. Martin sold his share to Ferlinghetti in 1955.
But the financial/founding history isn’t what is important. It is the store’s place in America literary history that stands out.
In December, 1955, Ferlinghetti and City Lights published Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. Ferlinghetti had seen Ginsberg read at Six Galleries. It was an extraordinary evening. The reading was delayed until Jack Kerouac, who after collecting donations for wine, returned with several gallon jugs. Also performing and/or in attendance were Mike McLure, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Phillip Lamantia and Phillip Whalen–all bright lights in the Beat movement. The next morning, Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram stating that he would like to publish the poem, the fourth book in City Lights’ Pocket-Rocket Series. Ferlinghetti’s telegram began: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?
Four months after publication, the cashier at the store and Ferlinghetti were arrested for selling obscene material–Howl. The case riveted the nation–and made Howl one of the most notorious/famous books of its time. The judge’s decision–that Howl was fully protected by the First Amendment–became an important precedent in the future cases against Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
And so…after browsing the three floors of the book-store, filled with memorabilia, photos, and more than just books, I went across the alley–Jack Kerouac Square–to the Vesuvio bar. This wonderful bar –mismatched furniture, decals, art work, cheap drinks, two floors, old posters–is a step back into time, or at least in my head. Pictures of Jack London vie with pictures of Jack Kerouac vie with pictures of David Crosby and Grace Slick. A giant portrait of James Joyce hangs next to a photo of Joyce reading the paper in Paris on Bloomsday, June 16th.
Ienjoyed myself. Spent most of the time walking around and reading the walls–the vintage posters advertising readings by a who’s who of San Francisco poets and concerts from the early days, the photos of legendary writers, poets, activists and actors, and original art both bad and worse.
And then it was time to leave. Outside, we took a few pictures and turned to leave. And then, as I turned to look back, there coming out of the bar was Ferlinghetti himself. He stopped, looked around, and placed a cap on his head. My first inclination was to go up to him and shake his hand, thanking him for his long battle against censorship, imperialism, and philistinism, for his support of art, poetry and the avant-garde. But then I decided against it. Let a man walk out of a bar, look into the sunshine and set on his way without being bothered by an admirer.