Abandon all despair ye who enter here… As you enter the store, you’ll spy a narrow stairway on your right leading to a small mezzanine, used as an office and not open to the public. When 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.”) 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. In July 1952, he created perhaps the very first pop culture magazine, calling it City Lights after the great Chaplin film.
Martin used the mezzanine as his office, above a flower shop once occupying the small entrance room where the cash register is today.
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.
As Martin was putting up the Pocket Book Shop sign, Lawrence 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). Today, you can see a sign above the entrance for our sister shop.
Coming to San Francisco? Celebrate our 60th year in person and check out our special anniversary events.