There are few places around the globe that fully encompass all things Beat Generation in the same way as the City Lights Bookstore. Situated in the heart of San Francisco and owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the most prolific Beat Generation poets there is, the City Lights Bookstore is a Mecca for all beatniks and book lovers. A visit to City Lights is enough to transport anyone back to simpler times where you can focus on words, lyrics and meanings rather than your groceries, prescriptions or health insurance renewal.
City Lights Background
The City Lights Bookstore champions independent publishers and first published a huge number of now legendary cult titles including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The store exudes warmth and despite its cramped interior, it’s easy to see that every spare space is filled with the books that make San Francisco famous. Of course, to remain afloat, you’ll find the main floor stacked out with modern and contemporary fiction but also an astonishingly large collection of translated works from around the world, an area the shop’s founder Ferlinghetti has been said to be particularly interested in. The area we’re looking for however is found on the top floor. Book after book of poetry is stored up there and you can peruse the titles of your favourites and also indulge in some newer contemporary writers.
The store itself was founded in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, a close friend and the publishing company, responsible for so many of the classic Beat generation texts, began at the same time. This combination of both a publishing company, a bookstore and of course the name of a cult legend above its door has meant that City Lights is one of the most successful independent bookstores worldwide. When visiting City Lights, many pilgrims have even had the great honour of meeting Ferlinghetti, who still uses the store to read, write and relax. Since 2001, the store has been recognised as an official historic landmark thanks to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, due to its role in the literary history of the city.
City Lights Publishing House and the Pocket Poets Series
The publishing arm of the bookstore is also very popular. The instantly recognisable covers of the Pocket Poets Series included sixty books by Beat Generation poets as such as Kerouac, O’Hara, Levertov and of course, Ferlinghetti himself. The books were initially designed to make the poems of the Beats affordable and accessible to all and gave many people their first foray into an alternative, somewhat avant-garde area of poetry. Many of the collections originally published by City Lights Publishing in the Pocket Poets Series have gone on to be considered real classics such as Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. In the late sixties the publishing arm began to operate from a different location but was nevertheless successful, continuing to publish works by alternative, off-beat authors, branching out to specialise in world literature too. Recent developments in the non-fiction political arm of the publishing house has meant that City Lights can now include Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn among the authors they’ve published.
City Lights Foundation: giving something back to San Fran
The development of the City Lights Foundation is also a testament to the influence of the store. The foundation works with the aim of advancing deep literacy which roughly translates as their desire to strengthen literacy skills but also those essential elements of knowledge which enable people to develop and evolve as individuals and community members. This all sounds pretty deep and a lot of the works published via the Foundation are non-fiction dealing with very sensitive topics including homelessness, prison life and social justice.
The City Lights Bookstore describes itself as a specialist in world literature, the arts and progressive politics and hosts readings from modern day new generation Beat-style writers and pioneers the work of independently published authors.
Any self-respecting fan of the Beat Generation has the City Lights Bookstore among their top five places to visit before they die and in reality, it does not disappoint. On just entering the building you can begin to understand and immerse yourself in the world that your idols once inhabited. The City Lights Bookstore is a beacon for all beat pilgrims and somewhere which continually revolutionises and seeks to enhance the modern readers’ understanding of literature.
Article by Izzy Woods
Photo by David S. Wills