Anarchist Bookstore Made Landmark
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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
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
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
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
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.
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