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Anarchist Bookstore Made Landmark

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo Published Monday, May 14, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News Icon of radicalism finds
    Message 1 of 1 , May 16, 2001
      News for Anarchists & Activists:

      Published Monday, May 14, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

      Icon of radicalism finds official favor

      City Lights Bookstore earns historic status

      BY KIM VO
      Mercury News

      City Lights Bookstore, meeting place for anarchists and
      ``angelheaded hipsters,'' poor poets and a Czech president,
      is on a journey toward becoming, of all things, an official
      government treasure.

      San Francisco is preparing to confer landmark status on
      Lawrence Ferlinghetti's bookstore and publishing house, the
      one that shook 1950s America with its publication of Allen
      Ginsberg's ``Howl,'' the beat movement's seminal poem filled
      with sex, disillusionment and angry dreamers. With its cry
      against social conformity and call for spirituality, it was
      a cultural watershed. As musician Lou Reed told Rolling
      Stone magazine, ``Modern rock lyrics would be inconceivable
      without Ginsberg.''

      And Ginsberg's influence, arguably, would have been
      inconceivable without City Lights. Ferlinghetti and a
      business associate were tried on obscenity charges for
      publishing and selling the poem, a 1957 trial that pushed
      the beat movement into the national consciousness and set a
      new standard for free speech.

      ``Howl'' was vindicated, the courts finding ``socially
      redeeming importance'' within its poetic wail. Decades
      later, City Lights is set to follow its path.

      Not that this requires a legal hearing. The court of public
      opinion has long considered the North Beach bookstore a
      cultural force, and today it's as much a destination spot as
      Haight-Ashbury. City Lights was a nexus for writers, and
      like the urbane wit of New York's Algonquin Roundtable in
      the 1920s and '30s, the beats' incorporation of vernacular,
      jazz and a questioning of American ideals defined the
      literary voice of its time.

      After a lengthy review, city leaders are suggesting City
      Lights has architectural as well as cultural value. The
      planning commission approved its landmark application last
      week. It now goes to the board of supervisors for final

      ``It's very important for the country to have landmarks that
      stand for what we do,'' said co-owner Nancy Peters, who
      plans to apply for state and national landmark status as
      well. And what City Lights stands for, she said, is
      ``dissenting opinion, insurgent imagination and radical
      democratic spirit.''

      Landmark status would make it difficult to significantly
      change -- or raze -- the 1907 building, a hurdle
      Ferlinghetti and Peters welcome. This way, a high-rise or
      apartment tower won't be built between Columbus Avenue and
      Jack Kerouac Street. That might have been unthinkable at one
      time, but North Beach has changed much.

      ``The inhabitants have become richer,'' said Ferlinghetti,
      82, the city's first poet laureate and a North Beach
      resident. ``Poets can't afford to live there.''

      Old North Beach, with its low rents and cheap food, had
      attracted a community of bohemians, painters, communists,
      actors and, of course, writers. City Lights became a
      ``world-famous gathering place of intellectuals and
      literati,'' according to its landmark application. Poets
      Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure and Gary Snyder,
      novelists Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and
      performance artist Lenny Bruce circled the literary hub.

      And the literati didn't stop coming when the beat movement
      faded in the early 1960s, probably because City Lights has
      remained a vital publishing house, putting out a dozen
      titles a year, though ``Howl'' remains its top seller;
      875,000 copies were printed as of last year.

      Ferlinghetti recalls Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel
      visiting the store and exclaiming, ``They have my book!''

      A bus of African tourists once came, among them a writer
      thrilled to find his translated novel on the shelves, Peters

      McClure tells this story of when he was
      playwright-in-residence at the American Conservatory
      Theater: ``Tom Stoppard stopped by and he was kind of lonely
      so I asked, `Is there any place I can take you?' He said, `I
      want to go to City Lights.' ''

      But City Lights is not just for the famous, the published.

      It began in 1953 as the country's first all-paperback
      bookstore, making books more affordable for the masses.
      (Hardcovers are now sold if a book's paperback version is
      not yet available.) On its south window, near a mural of
      Chiapas, Mexico, is a sign reading, ``A kind of library
      where books are sold.''

      It is a bookstore where the poetry buyer is a poet herself,
      where the shelves are lined with literature, not diet books.
      Here, postcards of Ferlinghetti's late friends -- including
      Kerouac and Neal Cassady -- are for sale and fliers announce
      the next Food Not Bombs demonstration, the next Julia
      Butterfly appearance. A hand-written sign reminds people
      that ``Printer's ink is the greatest explosive.''

      Visitors are invited to sit at the mismatched chairs and
      tables scattered throughout the store and read, or stare out
      the upstairs window to the laundry drying across the alley.
      Jacob LaFleur, 22, of Berkeley, has been visiting the
      bookstore between temporary jobs for the past month. He has
      never bought anything. ``At some other bookstores that may
      be OK, but most of the time not,'' he said.

      Ferlinghetti and Peters encourage it. Yes, money is
      important to running a business, but this, after all, is a
      bookstore named after a Charlie Chaplin movie. In that tale,
      a blind woman believes the Little Tramp is a wealthy duke,
      so he sets out to raise money for an operation to restore
      her sight. It is a tale, Ferlinghetti says, of the ``little
      man, the thinking man, the man of heart.''

      Contact Kim Vo at kvo@... or (415) 477-2518.

      Dan Clore

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