Poets, come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open your doors,
You have been holed-up too long
in your closed worlds.
The trees are still falling
and we’ll to the woods no more.
No time now for sitting in them
As man burns down his own house
to roast his pig
No time now for the artist to hide
Above, beyond, behind the scenes,
Indifferent, paring his fingernails,
Refining himself out of existence.
Poetry the common carrier
for the transportation of the public
to higher places
than other wheels can carry it.
-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Populist Manifesto No. 1” (1976), selections
There’s a funky, triangular building nestled between North Beach and Chinatown in San Francisco. Books peer through clerestory glass windows, incendiary banners hang aloft — even the alley hosts a brilliant Zapatista mural on the original 1907 brick. But to tell this humble storefront’s story, one must begin with the story of renowned poet, activist, painter, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Born in 1919 and educated in North Carolina, New York, and Paris, Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco in 1953, where he began to teach French. Soon after his arrival, he submitted his poetry translations to Peter D. Martin, sociology instructor at San Francisco State and editor of City Lights, a pop culture magazine named for the Charlie Chaplin film. To support the magazine and shake up the city’s literary scene, the two founded City Lights Bookstore at 261 Columbus Avenue — the first all-paperback bookstore in the country.
You should hear Andy Bellows, City Lights’s General Manager and staff member for more than 30 years, tell the tale: “Peter D. Martin and Lawrence had the idea because, at that time — the ‘50s — quality paperbacks were hard to find. Mostly they were on spinner racks in drug stores, and you can imagine the selection was…underwhelming. And Lawrence had the idea that everybody should be able to find and afford good quality literature.” From the beginning, Ferlinghetti was committed to free intellectual inquiry and widespread literacy. When Martin moved back to New York after two years, Ferlinghetti became City Lights’s sole owner and dared to turn the publishing industry on its head.
In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers and printed a small edition of his own work, Pictures of the Gone World. His collection was the first in the Pocket Poet Series, which now features the likes of Jack Kerouac, Bob Kaufman, and Diane DiPrima. You might know them as the “Beat poets.” The fourth collection, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, subject of the 1956 blockbuster obscenity trial, brought Ferlinghetti, his contemporaries, and their anti-authoritarian politics international recognition. Today, City Lights Publishers prints 16-20 titles a year from the same small office in the same progressive, transnational vein. What’s changed is they have a podcast and a robust social media program.
Slowly but surely, City Lights grew to occupy all three floors of the building. Ferlinghetti filled the vacated flower shop on the first floor and bore into the basement: “He knocked down a piece of plywood and saw that there was this cavernous space below. Turns out, it’s where one of the dragons from Chinese New Year was stored,” Andy told me. There are innumerable treasures still to be discovered within City Lights’s three walls.
“We’re fortunate that people from all over the world want to physically come into the bookstore, which is an advantage we have over online booksellers. In large part, it’s because of our association with the Beat generation writers. But it’s much more than that. It’s the focused selection of books that we currently offer,” Andy emphasized. Ferlinghetti mentored a new generation of booksellers, and, together, they’ve amassed an outstanding selection of world literature, poetry, and progressive nonfiction that is as significant today as it was in the ‘50s.
City Lights’ main floor is dedicated to fiction — “our bread and butter,” Andy called it. Checkered floors delight and disorient as one descends to nonfiction downstairs, not to be overlooked: “Our nonfiction really informs and gives context to the history of the fiction that we’re offering.” Rather than stock the national bestsellers, City Lights prioritizes titles from small, independent publishers and university presses, and displays the work of local self-published authors and zines on consignment. “We’re fortunate in our limited size,” Andy said. “We really only have room to carry what we want to carry. We focus on what we do well and shine a light on emerging writers and harder-to-find books.”
“The staff is really involved in buying,” Andy continued. The dozen longstanding, brainy bookworms have a direct say in what City Lights carries, and they curate many sections of the store individually, including “Black Radical Imagination” and “Pedagogies of Resistance” — the newest division that provides “history and analysis of past and present revolutionary movements to better educate people about the challenges we face today.”
The locals’ favorite haunt is on the third floor: the poetry room. Complete with an old rocking chair, lovingly dubbed “the Poet’s Chair,” plenty of natural light, and characteristically anarchic signs painted by Ferlinghetti himself (“Educate yourself and read here 14 hours a day”), the cozy room, where big thinkers rub shoulders, realizes Ferlinghetti’s vision for City Lights. “Lawrence always conceived of City Lights as a literary meeting place — where authors and poets could mingle and exchange ideas. That’s why we’re open seven days a week ‘til midnight every day.” Andy said that people love the space so much that he’s received requests to spread family members’ ashes in the nooks and crannies.
Despite its global reach, City Lights remains deeply entrenched in its surrounding neighborhoods and the city of San Francisco. The City Lights Foundation, housed upstairs, collaborates with other cultural institutions to advance literacy, critical thinking, and democratic engagement. The store itself provides tours to elementary schoolers, who read their poetry in the poetry room. City Lights also hosts authors at readings three times per week, as well as larger-scale events in partnership with neighboring businesses. Most recently, City Lights organized a week-long celebration of the anniversary of the Dada Movement. “It was fun and hilarious,” Andy told me. Visit their website for the latest happenings!
Perhaps nothing embodies City Lights’s commitment to social justice better than the massive banners adorning its façade. The store began working with local graphic designers during the election season of 2000 because, as Andy said, “we felt it was our responsibility to say something public.” One banner soon became five banners; most recently, in summer 2017, City Lights hooked up with the refugee advocacy group the New American Story Project. Today’s banner features the faces of five immigrants paired with Mahmoud Darwish’s rousing words: “Nothing is harder on the soul than the smell of dreams while they are evaporating.” The final panel reads: “Stop the deportations!”
At the end of our phone call, Andy returned my attention to the man who started it all: “I can’t say enough about Lawrence, just having worked for him for all these years. He’s so generous. He’s 98 years old now, and he doesn’t come into the store very often — he’s just not as mobile as he was. But it’s been an honor to work for him all these years. He’s just an amazing person.” Since Andy and I talked, Lawrence celebrated his 99th birthday.
Between his insurgent poetry, trailblazing publications, and beloved bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, perhaps the inaugural “reckless reader,” has left a lasting legacy. After all, City Lights Books’s 65-year mission to “give voice to marginalized cultures and emerging writers” will always be relevant.
City Lights gifts our members with a handmade journal with a $50 purchase. Not a member and want to receive special perks and discounts at City Lights and other participating stores? Become a member and we’ll send you a Reckless Reader card!