Every writer who happens to be passing through San Francisco -- on literary tour, on vacation, on a business trip -- visits City Lights, who knows why? To ogle at the booksellers perhaps? To look at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's signs hung around the store ("Printer's Ink Is the Great Explosive," "Where the Streets of the World Meet the Avenue of the Mind"). To relax in the safe-haven of well-curated books (with sections like "Muckraking," "Commodity Aesthetics," "Topographies," and "Stolen Continents"). To discover the remnants left behind by a Christian sect in the basement (half-covered by bookshelves you can still make out "Remember Lot's Wife" and "I Am the Door" on the walls). Perhaps they go to walk around and look for a vortex of Beat irreverence, searching the bookstore for the same qualities Allen Ginsberg once allotted to the Beat Generation: "exuberance, libertarian optimism, erotic humor, frankness, continuous energy, invention, collaborative amity."
Whatever the case, City Lights is a literary mecca.
So much so that it often carries the bulk of the city's literary legend. The rise of the Beats marks a pivot point in San Francisco history, and if we step back, everything that comes before or after seems to be almost eclipsed.
Of course, you've seen this book:
It was the book that publsher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights clerk Shig Murao were arrested over, on an obscenity charge. During the trial, Howl became insanely popular and, soon after City Lights won its lawsuit, the book and its publisher were seen as important beacons in the Free Press movement. Grove Press used the case as precedent and went ahead with the publication of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.
Ginsberg himself knew Howl could land him in trouble. On the second reading of the work at San Francisco State University, he was asked to skip the expletives. His reaction was to replace expletives with the word "censored" to hilarious results: "...who let themselves be censored in the censored by saintly motorcyclists." It is a book of boisterous self-expression in an era marked by button-down conformity.
Often in articles written about City Lights, the Beat Generation claims center spotlight, with little said about the bookstore and publishing house's recent history.
My favorite thing about City Lights is its role in the community. I spoke to Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights' Director about the poetic gestures the bookshop provides its patrons. I mentioned that I read once that Ferlinghetti kept clippings of Walt Whitman's grass on display -- and I talked about how enriching that must have been for pedestrians and shoppers. She smiled and said, "It's hanging right there," then took a small frame from the wall and handed it to me. I stared at the yellowed grass, crackly and withered, and then at Ferlinghetti's writing in ghostly brown ink, "LEAVES OF GRASS from Whitman's Grave (1978)."
Aside from alluring gestures, City Lights has also remained outspoken in important moments. From 2001 to 2006, City Lights collaborated with the San Francisco Print Collective on a series of provocative banners. The first set appeared in the windows of the bookstore's second floor in October 2001. The banners depicted high-contrast black and white portraits of different types of Americans (a woman, an older man, a general) with a U.S. flag covering their mouths -- five portraits, five banners, and across them the following phrase: Dissent is Not Un-American. Katzenberger said that people would came into the shop crying in reaction to the banners, expressing gratitude that someone was speaking up in dissent.
In 2003, City Lights celebrated its 50th anniversary, and a third set of banners was installed that featured the line, "Tyrrany Cuts Off the Singer's Head," from a Pablo Neruda poem. Katzenberg said, "The night before the big event we had [the San Francisco Print Collective] come and install the banners. There were a few thousand people in front of the store. There were policemen around helping put up the barricades and supervising and I remember talking to one of them. He said, 'That is so great, you guys are putting that up there.' It had a big effect. The image has been repeated -- I've seen t-shirts made out of it, it makes the rounds all over the Internet. It's what we stand for here.
"City Lights is not only a place where you buy books, but where you encounter others. The idea of the literary meeting place has always been true. It goes back full circle to the founding era of City Lights when the conformism of the '50s busted open into a response tool. I feel that we are living through a similar thing, where everybody marches to the tune of technological giants and our lives are being shaped in ways we don't necessarily think about. I think that what City Lights is here to represent is a critical way of assessing and an ability to understand, and a place where you can communicate with someone so that maybe the two of you can understand together, so that maybe the two of you can have a crack at society. I have a very strong belief that books play a huge role in that."
When I asked Katzenberger if there was a piece of writing by Ferlinghetti that she found inspirational as she lead the publishing house into this century, she pointed me to an introduction Ferlinghetti wrote for the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, published on the press's 40th anniversary. "It's always been my inspiration as an editor/publisher, and now director of the company," she e-mailed. "I've added a couple of bracketed additions, to expand it:"
"Even though some say that an avant-garde in literature no longer exists, the smaller independent publisher [and bookseller] is itself still a true avant-garde, its place still out there, scouting the unknown... The function of the independent press (besides being essentially dissident) is still to discover, to find the new voices and give voice to them... I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment. What has proved most fascinating are the continuing cross-currents and cross-fertilizations between [writers] widely separated by language or geography... So may our little cultural exchange program continue into the 21st century in a world without walls in which poetry is still the best news."
Katzenberger signs off, "Beautiful, no?"
Birthdays are an important marker of time. At City Lights, it is easy to think of the anniversary as a measurement to hold yourself up against. While City Lights celebrates its sixtieth anniversary, Katzenberger just had her 25th. When asked about the synchronicity of the anniversaries, she gets a little teary-eyed. Sitting in her sunny office on the second floor of the bookshop, she is quick to smile and then for a while we chat about everyone's age in relation to the bookstore. Bob Sharrad, Senior Editor, is the exact same age as City Lights. Paul Miyazaki, the buyer for the bookstore, is two or three years older than City Lights.
Five years ago, I did an internship for a few months at City Lights. I remember sitting at a desk (once used by Jack Kerouac) composing query letters to the press and hearing at the exact hour every day the overhead speaker of a passing tour bus travel by the window, "And here is the legendary City Lights..." Afterward, no longer an intern, I spent many hours browsing books, spending too much time in sections I never thought I had an interest in, and wondering whether any Beat dust was still around.
I think about how Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder, and as Katzenberger calls him "the soul of the place," is ninety-four. He is one of the most beloved poets of our city. Not only a renowned poet, but also a painter, Katzenberger doubts he had a long-term plan for the future when he started City Lights in 1953. "I've never asked him at what point he was sure that City Lights was going to outlive him, but I think that, as someone who until very recently has thought of himself as immortal, in some way, he really didn't think about it." We are both quiet, contemplating her pronouncement. "May Lawrence live another twenty years," she said. "He is a huge inspiration."
City Lights celebrates its 60th anniversary starting this Sunday, June 23, 2-5pm with a special event in the San Francisco bookstore, kicking off a host of readings and other activities at various locations throughout the city. For more information visit www.citylights.com.