Since we’re celebrating our 60th anniversary this year, I’ve been asked more than once to say something about the longevity of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. The corollary question, whether stated or politely left unasked, is usually “And how will you ever survive?”
In the background of course is an ever-rolling drumbeat, said to portend “the death of books” – and, concomitantly, the death of bookstores. Fueled by corporations who need us to believe that we must have their latest gizmos, which have supposedly rendered most everything else obsolete, the noise that’s generated can make it hard to find a different tune to dance to.[pullquote]City Lights was founded in 1953, the brainchild of a poet and pacifist and an anarchist. The goal was to create a literary meeting place, where those who might be looking for an alternative to the consumerism and conformism of the time could find inspiration and a place to encounter others who were seeking it, too.[/pullquote]
How, then, are we still here after all these years, and what is it now that makes us feel there’s any future for us? Is a place like City Lights even necessary anymore?
Those who continue to come to the bookstore to find what they need tell me that the answer is an emphatic YES. And since I am one of them, I would like to raise my own din now and joyfully proclaim on the 60th Anniversary of the founding of City Lights: HELL YES, WE’RE STILL HERE, AND WE ARE HERE TO STAY!
City Lights was founded in 1953, the brainchild of a poet and pacifist and an anarchist. The goal was to create a literary meeting place, where those who might be looking for an alternative to the consumerism and conformism of the time could find inspiration and a place to encounter others who were seeking it, too. The vision of an all-paperback bookstore was a populist notion, based in the idea that promoting an active engagement with books would help to create a more enlightened society, strengthen our democracy and stimulate visions of a more sustainable, humane future. The experiment was an immediate success. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti tells the story, “From the moment we opened the door the place was packed. We stayed open until after midnight; people didn’t want to leave!”
Ferlinghetti’s decision to publish HOWL and risk its defense in court rocketed City Lights and its mission into a much wider public view. The trial represented a landmark challenge to the laws governing what could be published and disseminated, and Ferlinghetti’s victory cemented his reputation as a defender of free speech. HOWL’s vindication became an enduring symbol of triumph over conservatism of any sort, whether intellectual, political, sexual or social. Its depiction of the perils and depredations of capitalism were summed up by the presiding judge, who explained in his ruling: “The first part of ‘Howl’ presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity and mechanization leading toward war. . . . It ends in a plea for holy living. . . . “
Thus, the history of City Lights became forever entwined with the legacy of the Beat generation, with its rebellion and aspirations for liberation. The bookstore became a lodestone, as more and more people began to gravitate to it. The publishing house continued to bring out innovative and controversial work, and Ferlinghetti became a de facto ambassador of poetic political engagement. San Francisco became known as a city that attracted and welcomed countercultural experimentation and alternative visions, and City Lights Booksellers & Publishers became a civic institution, linked with the idea of a bohemian, progressive, fantastically beautiful city.
[pullquote]Something will always unexpectedly grab your attention, shake you out of your complacency, inspire your curiosity and affirm your sense of belonging to a tribe of intelligent and sensitive beings who cohabit this world along with you.[/pullquote]
And so now, in 2013 after so many years have passed and so many changes have been wrought in San Francisco and beyond, what is the role City Lights is to play? What is the need for a bookstore in the contemporary American landscape?
It seems we have come full circle in our mission. With a government bent on stifling dissent, with public space almost completely commodified and placed under total surveillance, with our private lives turned into fodder for marketing and branding campaigns, with the notion of access to “free information” offered up as a panacea that somehow can replace the need for investigation, reflection, education and action, a place like City Lights becomes more important than ever. The goal was never to turn a profit, publishing and selling books in order to line some fatcat’s pockets, rather, the point was always to awaken and inspire, to sound the alarm against the deepening consumerist slumber and the violence of capitalism run amok. Books offer keys to visions and revelations, and a bookstore offers a place to encounter a community of others who might share them. That is why we’re still here, because there is a real and potent value in that.
We still need places to find each other and to interact with ideas, and we’re seeing a tipping point in terms of a general awareness of what’s lost — and what’s at risk — when everything becomes mediated by technology. A bookstore has even more relevance as a community space now — but it’s not just any kind of space, it’s a space for THINKING and exploring collectively (even if all one does is to sit quietly next to another person among the books). A bookstore is the embodiment of a shared desire for that kind of inspiration and connection. It’s a place where ideas are born.
We know that the world is wide, and that being online is important as well. It’s another way to reach people and connect them to one another, with the same kinds of knowledge and ideas and cross-fertilizations that we’ve always had a role in promoting. But there is nothing like coming to the bookstore. Something will always unexpectedly grab your attention, shake you out of your complacency, inspire your curiosity and affirm your sense of belonging to a tribe of intelligent and sensitive beings who cohabit this world along with you. It’s a place to rejuvenate hope and commitment, and it offers a safe harbor for many many of us in an increasingly stormy world — we all very much need it, and that’s why we’re still here.
—Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights Publisher & Executive Director