Booksellers and Publishers
261 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
Often referred to as a literary landmark and one of the best independent bookstores in the country, City Lights in San Francisco has been on my bookstore bucket list for several years. What a pleasure it was to finally have a chance to visit this famous bastion of alternative culture. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my husband was scheduled to attend a conference in the City by the Bay, so I took the opportunity to tag along. San Francisco is full of bookstores, and I would eventually visit four of them. (More posts to come.) But of course, City Lights was the very first stop on my whirlwind bookstore tour.
On the sunniest day of our week in the City, I set out on foot for a pleasant walk of a mile or so from our hotel to the famous triangle-shaped building on Columbus Avenue at Broadway. I entered to find book clerk, Scott Davis, seated behind the front desk, nothing like the kind of desk you might find at a big chain bookstore, I might add. No bright displays of greeting cards, reading glasses, or area souvenirs here. There were a few t-shirts on the wall behind the desk and some City Lights postcards, but other than that, the books are the souvenirs at this venerable store.
Scott, a fixture at City Lights, has been with the store since 1978. I enjoyed chatting with him about the store for a few minutes before heading off on my own to investigate the many nooks and crannies of this interesting place.
Along with college professor, Peter D. Martin, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights in 1953. I was only a year old at the time. I would say that this store has a retro decor except that it really is that old. The original store has been expanded a few times, but the old charm has not changed. I began my tour in the store's famous basement. Creaky old wood stairs led me down to this sanctuary where the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would read and hangout in earlier days.
City Lights is often referred to as a literary meeting place, well known for its connection to “beat” poets, most notably Allen Ginsberg. This historic basement is where City Lights publishing got its start, and Ginsberg's controversial poem Howl put it on the underground publishing map.
City Lights has a library-like quality where patrons feel comfortable spending time reading without being bothered. As I came up from the basement, Scott encouraged me to do just that, noting that I should be sure to go upstairs and check out the poetry room. That was the next stop on my tour. Another wooden staircase led me to a cozy retreat with shelves and tables full of books and a comfy old rocking chair next to the window. The perfect spot for browsing a poetry book or two. Or ten. Here I found my literary souvenir, a book of poems by Andrei Codrescu, whose work my husband and I enjoy.
I sat down at a small table to take some notes and was soon joined in the poetry room by a young couple, Collin and Laura, who were in town from LA visiting a friend who was defending her dissertation at a nearby university. We struck up a conversation about bookstores--City Lights and others. They suggested that if I ever get to LA, I should check out one of their favorites, The Last Bookstore. Their intriguing description of the place prompted me to add it to my bucket list. You meet the coolest people in bookstores.
|Fellow bookstore enthusiasts, Collin and Laura|
Back downstairs on the main floor, I toured the central room that features the fiction offerings. In addition to the books, attention-getting posters and placards abound. Browsing the walls here could easily consume as much time as browsing the books. One particular plaque details the designation of City Lights as “Literary Landmark” and part of the Friends of Libraries U.S.A. Literary Landmarks Register. Given the store's unique history and worldwide fame, it is an apt designation indeed.
For more details about City Lights' history, visit City Lights Bookstore Tour on the store web page.
Finally back at the front desk, I thanked Scott for his help and purchased my poetry selection. Of course I had to have a t-shirt souvenir as well. And what luck, Scott graciously threw in a fun "HOWL If You Love City Lights Books" bumper sticker.
People from all over the world have visited this historic place, and I was thrilled to finally visit it myself.
Cross one off the bucket list!