from North Beach
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
261 Columbus Avenue (at Broadway)
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 United States, stocking classics of modem 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. To tell the story of the Beat Generation without mentioning City Lights would be impossible and a walking tour of Beat history naturally begins here. 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.”
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 Adier 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 see 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 cafes. 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 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 and City Lights were forced to stand trial in the old Hall of Justice. For once, justice did prevail and Howl was freed. Judge Clayton Horn ruled that a work could not be considered obscene if it had “the slightest redeeming social significance.” This legal precedent was used in later years 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 nonfiction, with sections entitled Muckraking, Commodity Aesthetics, Topographies, Evidence, People’s History, Class War, Stolen Continents, and other mind-shaking categories.
This month on the blog, in addition to our regular excerpts from recently released City Lights titles, we’re featuring excerpts from our backlist that orbit (near or far) around this theme of “journey,” observations from/about whatever worlds our authors have visited.
The Beat Generation in San Francisco is a blow-by-blow unearthing of the places where the Beat writers first came to full bloom: the flat where Ginsberg wrote “Howl;” Gary Snyder’s zen cottage in Berkeley; the ghostly railroad yards where Kerouac and -Cassady toiled; the pads where Jack & Neal & Carolyn lived; Ferlinghetti’s favorite haunts. This meticulous guide also brings to light never-before-heard stories about Corso, Bob Kaufman, DiPrima, Kyger, Lamantia and other West Coast Beats. A entertaining read as well as a practical walking (and driving) tour that covers the entire Bay Area. With an introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.