As I confessed in my Amazing Bookstores From Around the World post, I’d never been to City Lights Books, even though I’ve lived in the Bay Area off and on for the last sixteen years. This, dear readers, was something that I was decidedly *not* okay with. How could I be an aspiring writer living right across the Bay from San Francisco and not have visited one of the most famous bookstores in the country? This was a problem I needed to rectify A.S.A.P., and so last week I met up with my good friend and fellow aspiring writer and stand-up comedian Eric Wong to make a little pilgrimage into Chinatown in search of City Lights Books.
Here’s a little backstory for those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of City Lights Books. It was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, and was the first all-paperback bookstore in the country. Martin left two years later in 1955 to relocate to New York and establish New Yorker Bookstore. Ferlinghetti stayed on, however, and launched City Lights Publishers, using his own work Pictures of a Gone World as the first number in the Pocket Poets Series. That series sound familiar? It should: the fourth volume in the series was Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg.
Howl brought national attention to both Ginsberg and City Lights, and contributed to making City Lights a Beatnik hotspot in the mid-50s. Writers like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs hung out there, along with Gregory Corso and, of course, Ginsberg himself. The publication of Howl did not come without consequence, however. In March of 1957, Chester MacPhee, the local Collector of Customs, seized a shipment of the book’s second printing on the grounds of obscenity. He was forced to release the books when federal authorities wouldn’t confirm his charge, but this was just the beginning; a few months later, local police raided City Lights and arrested store manager Shigeyoshi “Shig” Murao for offering an obscene book for sale in the store. Ferlinghetti turned himself in shortly afterwards, and both he and Murao faced a $500 fine and a 6-month jail sentence.
The case went to court in August, 1957, and ran for just under a month. Ferlinghetti and Murao were represented pro bono by prominent defense attorney J. W. Ehrlich. Judge Clayton W. Horn presided over the case, and eventually declared that not only was Howl not obscene, but that a book that has “the slightest redeeming social importance” is guaranteed First Amendment protection. This precedent-setting verdict was a tremendous step forward in the fight against literary censorship, and helped previously banned books like Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be published.
The Howl obscenity case and subsequent verdict catapulted City Lights into the national spotlight and gave it a certain prestige that was rarely given to independent press of its size, both back then and now. City Lights continues to be a prominent fixture in the Bay Area literary scene, and has expanded to three floors since it first opened 60 years ago and now features both paper and hardback books from major and smaller, specialty publishers, including (naturally) City Lights publishers. It maintains its Beatnik legacy of anti-authoritarian, free-speech politics, which is evidenced in the decor of the store (some of which you can see in these pictures) and the titles that they carry on their shelves.
It was definitely a treat to be able to visit a store with so much history, and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to be able to go. I’ll admit, it was a bit smaller in person than I’d expected it to be, likely because I’d hyped it up in my head so much and because I was comparing it to the only store on the Amazing Bookstores list that I had been to, The Last Bookstore down in Los Angeles, which is enormous to the point of being overwhelming (but in a good way). But, that said, both Eric and I made some fun book finds and had a grand old time walking around and looking at all the local titles and the fun sign decor put up all around in the store, and I at least left feeling like it was an afternoon well spent.
So if you happen to be in the Bay Area, be sure to swing by City Lights. If nothing else, you’ll be able to say that you’ve visited one of alternative culture’s only “literary landmarks,” seeing as City Lights was declared an official historic landmark back in 2011. Doesn’t seem like a bad stop to add to your San Francisco tour, now does it?