Take a Tour of Our Bookstore

An excerpt from The Beat Generation in San Francisco by Bill Morgan

City Lights facade with Transamerica building in the background

If any city in America deserves the title of home of the Beat Generation, it is San Francisco. While New York can rightly boast to be the birthplace of the Beats, the literary group came to maturity and national prominence in this most beautiful city by the bay. In the 1950s San Francisco was a magnet for inventive writers, artists and thinkers during the conservative post-war years. Intellectual freedom blossomed with the publication and trial of “Howl” and by the 1960s, San Francisco was the destination of choice for a new generation of radical social innovators.

There’s no other spot in San Francisco that embodies the beatific fifty-year history of the Beat Generation better than City Lights Books, still at 261 Columbus Avenue, in the heart of “little old wooden North Beach,” as Ferlinghetti called it. It was founded in 1953, the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S., stocking classics of modern literature and progressive politics. In 1956, City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem “Howl” and became the lightning rod for a new generation of untamed poets. This rare combination of bookstore and publishing house battles on as one of the increasingly rare, un-chained independent book enterprises in America. Expert bookworms stock a comprehensive selection of the best books in every field. City Lights has been the head, heart, and undersoul of literary San Francisco for half a century, and—as the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan long ago proclaimed about itself — “Wise Men Fish Here.”

Four smiling patrons outside the original, smaller City Lights storefront, circa mid-1950s

The Artigues Building

A lot of cultural history happened within these four walls (one should say these three walls, since the building is triangular). The back of the City Lights building faces Chinatown, while the Columbus Avenue side faces east and looks out on the far end of Western civilization—a fitting location for this crossroads of culture.

Columbus Avenue was originally called Montgomery Avenue in the nineteenth century, when it was first cut diagonally through the city’s rectangular grid system of streets and has always been the main street of North Beach. In 1906, most everything in this part of the city was destroyed by the great San Francisco earthquake and the fire that followed. This building was no exception. After the firestorm passed and the smoke cleared, the owners rebuilt using the original brick basement arches.

In 1907 Oliver Everett designed the new building in Classical Revival style for the French owners, the brothers Emile and Jean Artigues. An Italian bookstore, A. Cavalli & Co. (still in business today at 1437 Stockton), moved into one of the four storefronts a year after the quake. City Lights occupied the same small storefront (at the corner of Kerouac Alley) and then moved into other rooms as space became available in the building. After renting for half a century, City Lights seized the opportunity to buy the building in 2000, retrofitted it to comply with earthquake safety standards, and restored its original appearance. Note the unique clerestory windows along the facade.

At the store’s original entryway, you’ll spy a narrow stairway leading to a small mezzanine, which was originally part of the bookstore but is now used as an office and not open to the public. Once you see how precipitous the stairs are, you won’t want to climb them anyway. (A sign once affixed to the top said “Watch your step. Many are the fallen women.”)

The Mezzanine

It was on the mezzanine that City Lights was born. Peter D. Martin, a native New Yorker, came to San Francisco in the 1940s to teach sociology at San Francisco State College. Martin’s father was Carlo Tresca, an Italian anarchist and editor, assassinated in New York City in 1943, maybe by the Mafia. Martin created perhaps the very first pop culture magazine in July 1952. He called it City Lights after the great Chaplin film, and published Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Philip Lamantia, Lawrence Ferling (a.k.a. Ferlinghetti), and the first film critiques of Pauline Kael (later of New Yorker fame). Martin used the mezzanine as his office, above a flower shop that once occupied the small area where the cash register is today.

The City Lights triangular storefront, shot head-on, from Kerouac Alley

The Triangular Storefront

When the flower shop folded, Martin decided to open a bookstore in the small storefront space to support the magazine and pay the rent. Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalls, “It was Peter Martin’s brilliant idea to have the first all-paperbound bookstore in the country. There weren’t any then; there was no place to get quality pocket books.” Until that time paperbacks were sold in drugstores and bus stations on spinning racks and occasionally in newsstands or grocery stores. They weren’t considered “real” books by the book trade and bookstores rarely carried them, except for Penguins. (Those literary amphibians had to be imported from England, since there wasn’t yet an American Penguin branch.) At the time, a few publishers were just beginning to experiment with mass-market paperback books. Companies like Signet, Dell, and Avon had been in business for a while, but you couldn’t expect to find much selection in the typical drugstore. As Martin was putting up the Pocket Book Shop sign, Ferlinghetti came up the street on the way home from his painting studio on Mission Street, stopped, and introduced himself to Martin, who exclaimed, “Oh, you’re the one who sent me the Jacques Prévert translations!” And thus a momentous literary partnership was formed.

Ferlinghetti loved the idea of a bookstore since his good friend George Whitman in Paris had started one called Librairie Mistral (later renamed Shakespeare & Co). The little one-room, pie-shaped bookstore opened in June 1953 and Martin and Ferlinghetti began selling new quality paperbacks and early alternative newspapers and magazines. Out front on the sidewalk there were used books in Parisian-style book racks with lids that could be closed at night (like quayside kiosks in Paris). They had started the store with $500 each, and never dreamed they would take in as much as $50 a day selling paperbacks. Kenneth Rexroth predicted, “There’s no way they could ever make a success of that bookstore. Lawrence could stand at the door and hand out paperbacks as fast as he could and he still wouldn’t make it.” Luckily, Rexroth’s pessimism proved wrong. They found that they couldn’t keep the racks filled or the doors closed. Ferlinghetti said he wanted to sell used books, so that he could sit in the back room, wear a green eyeshade and read, but he never got the chance. The new paperback revolution was in full swing, and there was no stopping it.

City Lights basement filled with bookshelves and a European-style cafe table
Cover of the fall 1953 issue of City Lights Magazine

City Lights magazine published only five issues, and, for a variety of reasons, Martin decided to move back to New York. Ferlinghetti bought him out for a thousand dollars in January 1955 and set about working on ideas of his own. From his graduate-school days at the Sorbonne in Paris, Ferlinghetti was familiar with the tradition of booksellers also being publishers, and he wanted to print small editions of poetry in paperback format. City Lights’ first publication was his own collection, Pictures of the Gone World, published in 1955 in an edition of 500 copies by the fine letterpress printer David Ruff. This was number one of the Pocket Poets Series, inspired by a French publisher’s Poets of Today series. Pictures of the Gone World was soon followed by Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile translated by Kenneth Rexroth, Poems of Humor & Protest by Kenneth Patchen, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, True Minds by Marie Ponsot, and Here and Now by Denise Levertov.

Portrait of a smiling Shigeyoshi Murao behind stacks of books

Shigeyoshi Murao, a Japanese American born in Seattle, who had spent two years in an Idaho internment camp during WWII, was central to the bookstore from almost the beginning. His personality set the tone for the store. While Ferlinghetti spent much time managing the publishing side, Murao ran the bookstore. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe crudely described Murao: “the Nipponese panjandrum of the place, sat glowering with his beard hanging down like those strands of furze and fern in an architect’s drawing, drooping over the volumes by the cash register.” Never far from him were the I Ching and a bottle of Coca-Cola. He told a friend, Gordon Ball, that he was going to call his autobiography “Confessions of a Cokesucker” because he drank more than a dozen a day. Herb Gold recalled that Murao “made an atmosphere that was hugely welcoming and delightful,” even if he never kept the books in order or discouraged theft.

The Basement

At the back of the store one day, Ferlinghetti discovered a loose plywood sheet. When he pounded on it, it fell down and revealed a dark cellar that a Chinese electrician used as storage space. This was also the lair of Chinatown’s ceremonial dragon, brought out every year for the Chinese New Year Parade. Ferlinghetti’s poem “The Great Chinese Dragon” tells the tale of the dragon “creeping out of an Adler Alley cellar like a worm out of a hole sometime during the second week in February every year when it sorties out of hibernation in its Chinese storeroom pushed from behind by a band of forty-three Chinese electricians and technicians who stuff its peristaltic accordion-body up thru a sidewalk delivery entrance.” Ferlinghetti also discovered signs painted on the walls by a Christian sect that had used the basement for prayer meetings, and on the walls today you can still fragments of them: “Remember Lot’s Wife,” “Born in Sin and Shapen in Niquity,” “I and My Father Are One,” and “I Am the Door.” Ferlinghetti made a deal with the landlord, put in a staircase, persuaded the Chinese Dragon to leave, and expanded the store into the basement.

Along the stairway to the basement, City Lights installed a letter rack where itinerants could get their mail, as in some French literary cafés. A large bulletin board served as the literary communications center for all of North Beach, with many offers to share rides, apartments, and romance. The basement of the store is what old-timers remember best. They could sit and read without being hassled to buy anything. Here, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and other writers read, rapped, and hung out. Neal was often seen roaring up to the store in his jalopy and rushing down here to pick up the latest Edgar Cayce title. Ferlinghetti’s “office” was a small room under the stairway (now a storeroom). It was there that Ferlinghetti told Kerouac that his favorite cat had died back home. Not exactly a historic occasion, but Jack recorded his sadness in his most introspective book, Big Sur.

The City Lights basement, filled with bookshelves
Old painted door that reads I AM THE DOOR
Original cover of Allen Ginsberg's books, HOWL

City Lights Publishers

The basement is where City Lights “underground” publishing truly began. Their first big break came in October 1955, when Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Six Gallery. Ginsberg had written the poem for himself, never expecting to read it in public let alone publish it. Ferlinghetti was at the reading and at once recognized Ginsberg as a great new voice in American poetry. He wrote him a telegram echoing Emerson’s letter to the young Whitman upon reading Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” to which he added, “When do I get the manuscript?” Ferlinghetti did get the manuscript and published Howl and Other Poems — and the rest is history. Upon publication in November 1956, there was little attention given to it. Not surprising for a small edition of poetry from a tiny paperback press, a long way from Ginsberg’s home turf in New York. But all that changed on June 1, 1957, when police officers from the Juvenile Department arrested the bookstore manager, Shigeyoshi Murao — and later Ferlinghetti — for selling “Howl” and the magazine Miscellaneous Man. They charged that the material was obscene and would corrupt America’s youth.

Legal action against Murao and the magazine was dropped, but Ferlinghetti was forced to stand trial in the old Hall of Justice. For once, justice did prevail and “Howl” was freed. In a breakthrough First Amendment case, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that a work could not be considered obscene if it had “redeeming social significance.” This legal precedent was used in later years by Grove Press to publish classics like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Capricorn, Naked Lunch, and other works of previously banned articulations of the life force in action. The immediate effect of the trial and the accompanying national publicity made Ginsberg’s epic poem an underground bestseller and launched a revolution of new “wide-open” American literature. (Pablo Neruda told Ferlinghetti in Cuba in 1959 that he loved “your wide-open poetry.”)

Today, poetry has been elevated from the basement and occupies its own room on the second floor and the basement houses non-fiction, with sections titled Muckraking, Commodity Aesthetics, Topographies, Evidence, People’s History, Class War, Stolen Continents, and other mind-shaking categories.

Ferlinghetti and two other men in suits, talking outside the courtroom of the Howl obscenity trial

The Main Room

For decades the central room on the main floor was rented by an Italian travel agency, Fratelli Forte, who sold steamship tickets back to the Old Country. In 1978 the brothers retired, and City Lights moved in, making the store twice as large and twice as interesting. At that time Ferlinghetti and Nancy J. Peters moved the publishing branch back to the bookstore after a ten-year stay on upper Grant Avenue, setting up an editorial office in the basement, where Ferlinghetti had worked in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In a few years, the editors moved upstairs to the mezzanine, publishing such luminaries as Charles Bukowski, Georges Bataille, Sam Shepard, Karen Finley, and Andrei Codrescu.

Woman studying a bookshelf in the City Light main room

The main room now has the finest fiction by American, English, and European writers, magazines and journals, art books, and City Lights publications. Here and throughout the store, you can find new-release hardcovers and quality paperbacks from all major publishing houses, along with a wide range of titles from harder-to-find small presses and specialty publishers. Each member of the staff has some individual area of expertise and this makes for the inimitable quality of what’s on the shelves. 

At times the bookstore would lose money and the publishing company would bail it out, and vice versa. Thieves were sometimes a problem, too, from gangs of professionals to business-district shoplifters in three-piece suits. Every once in a while a former hippie who’d gone too far with a philosophy of sharing will send City Lights a note of apology and a check to pay for books stolen thirty years ago. Once, one of City Lights’ authors, Gregory Corso, smashed in the glass front door after the store was closed and rifled the cash register. People at Vesuvio, the bar across the alley, who saw it happen came over and boarded up the window and called the manager. Perhaps Corso viewed this as an advance on his royalties, and that’s how Ferlinghetti treated it. He didn’t bring charges, but suggested that Corso might want to get out of town since there were hostile eyewitnesses. Corso split for Rome, where he hung out often in the Campo di Fiori, becoming notorious for his various escapades, and didn’t return to San Francisco for many years. (He is now buried in the Protestant Cemetery in the Testaccio district of Rome, near his beloved Shelley.)

The Barber Shop

The next space to be added was occupied by a certain Ray the Barber. He seems to have augmented his tonsorial income by dealing dope, and was busted, ending up in Soledad Prison. Years later when Ferlinghetti was giving a reading in the prison, who should he see but Ray the Barber, still doing time.

In this room (and elsewhere in the store) you can see many hand-lettered signs by Ferlinghetti: “Stash Your Sell Phone and Be Here Now.” “A Kind of Library Where Books Are Sold.” “Free the Press from Its Corporate Owners.” “Printers Ink Is the Greater Explosive.” “Have a Seat and Read a Book.” You’ll also find the City Lights logo here and there around the store; it’s a medieval guild mark Ferlinghetti chose from the Koch Book of Signs. At the front door, he has improved on Dante with a sign that reads “Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here.”

In 2020, when the bookstore reopened after being shut down for three months by the COVID pandemic, this room became an alternate entrance point to the bookstore. A visitor is greeted immediately by a proud display of most of the books on offer from City Lights Publishers, including the legendary Pocket Poets Series (with the rest of the City Lights poetry backlist displayed in the Poetry Room upstairs). Two walls are filled with tall shelves showcasing a selection of the newest titles being published in hardcover by all of the major houses. A wide window with a view onto Columbus Avenue, is flanked by Information Desk, and an Anti-Racism section. 

The upstairs poetry room, filled with bookshelves and a central table, in daytime

Poetry Room/Beat Literature

One of the last of the old bohemians, Henri Lenoir, founded Vesuvio (the bar next door) and lived in two small rooms upstairs where the Poetry Room is now. It holds one of the largest collections of poetry in any bookstore anywhere. There are thousands of books by everyone from Auden to Zukofsky and there are separate sections for Beat literature, City Lights poets, poetry criticism, and poetry anthologies. Frequent readings, book parties, and signings have been held up here, and the schedule for events is posted around the store. 

Editorial Offices

City Lights editorial offices occupy the rest of the second floor. Today, City Lights publishes not only poetry and fiction — including much work in translation — but also books on social and political issues. There are well over 200 books in print, and at least a dozen new titles published every year. The press, like the store, is known for its deep commitment to radical democracy and progressive politics. As former bookstore manager Richard Berman pointed out, “Without the publishing company the store would have been just another bookstore, but working together we have made an impact on American culture.”

Group shot of 15 smiling City Lights staff members posing outside the storefront
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters posing together outside the store in 2001

On July 16, 2001 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously named City Lights Landmark #228 because of its “seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation, for stewarding and restoring City Lights Bookstore, for championing First Amendment protections, and for publishing and giving voice to writers and artists everywhere.” Now, after almost seventy years of supporting the right to read, think, write, debate, and dissent, City Lights has come to symbolize the American spirit of intellectual inquiry. 

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