City Lights Bookstore Interview: a piece of San Francisco history

Stores like City Lights shape a city, I think. Shape the generations that visit them, that know of them, along with their reading, and that’s what gets me about City Lights — the people it’s touched. I mean, at one point tourists would come to check it out, it’s reputation was that compelling.

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And then there’s the store’s close association with Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima and Jack Kerouac.

It was the first all-paperback bookstore in the US and in 2001, was made an official historical landmark — the business and not the building as these things usually do — for “playing a seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation”.

Now, it carries new-release titles and those titles you won’t find anywhere else. And, it’s publishing press has about 200 titles in print. It’s still carrying on it’s legacy of supporting innovative and progressive ideas and authors, the kind you may not find at your local store.

I spoke to Stacey from the store about City Lights and her own experience with the store.

Stacey, what is your first memory or experience of the City Lights store?

My first memory of City Lights is probably similar to the many thousands of people who have made the pilgrimage over the 60+ years the store has been in business.  I had just moved to California from New York for college, and my cool new school friend said that we had to go to San Francisco and visit City Lights.  I’m sure that she said something like it “was the coolest bookstore” she’d ever been to. And, of course, she was right. I was pretty charmed by the whole place.  I remember noticing City Lights’ publications in particular, as they are featured all over the store.  I do remember thinking that I had to buy something “smart,” in that silly way one can feel when they’re young and insecure.

How would you describe the store to someone on the other end of world, for whom places like this are a rarity?
city lights bookstore 7Sadly, I think places like City Lights are becoming rarer and rarer.  City Lights is a comfortable, beautiful place, filled with more books than you knew you wanted to read.  There is an entire room devoted to poetry, a huge main room with the best selection of novels and short stories you’ll ever find, as well as a section with staff picks, which I always appreciate.  There’s nothing like a personal recommendation from a bookseller here—the people who work here truly have great taste, and their suggestions will never steer you in the wrong place. The basement is comprised of many nonfiction sections including books on music, theater, philosophy, science, spiritual traditions, religion, and much more.

Can you tell us about the alternative culture that the store is famous for having/encouraging?

City Lights is very much associated with the Beat Generation writers including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, William Burroughs, and, of course, Jack Kerouac.  There are plenty of books and films at this point, to seek out if you’d like to find out more about the artists and writers.  And, of course, we have a substantial selection of those here at City Lights, shelved on the third floor of our poetry room.

City Lights has a history of being the center for people with revolutionary ideas – how has it carried on that ethos into a new century?

City Lights still remains a safe place for dissident voices, and we continue to carry books by authors on progressive political issues, ecology, sexuality, religion, spirituality, and more.

How has the publishing arm changed things for the store? Has it helped increase it’s longevity, for city lights bookstore 4instance?

City Lights publishes not only poetry and fiction—including much work in translation—but also books on social and political issues. There are 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.”

What is the aim behind the City Lights Foundation?

For over half a century, City Lights Books has demonstrated a commitment to preserving and promoting the diversity of voices and ideas that are represented in quality books. As the increasingly concentrated mass media and new information technologies change the way people live, work, and think, we believe that nurturing the ability to think critically, to discern truth, and to communicate knowledge is essential to a democratic society. With this in mind, we have formed the non-profit City Lights Foundation with the goal of advancing deep literacy, which is not only the ability to read and write but fluency in the knowledge and skills that enable us to consciously shape our lives and the life of our community.

To find out more about the store, check out it’s website.

2 Comments

  • Cleo says:

    What a fascinating post – I like that the store is still there welcoming political views from modern writers.

    • Verushka says:

      Thank you! Reading about it, its quickly become one of those place I have to see in my lifetime! I love how fiercely independent (and independently thinking) it still is!

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