A Literary Meeting Place: The History Behind City Lights Bookstore
A Literary Meeting Place: The History of City Lights Bookstore
Post World War II culture in the United States was predicated on conformity and normalcy. But in the world of poetry, literature and writing, a movement began in the 1940s that rebelled against these accepted ideals. In the San Francisco this movement began with the “San Francisco Renaissance“. These poets were united mostly through their desire to eschew a ‘poetic mainstream’, but aesthetically, they did have a cohesive aesthetic, and had largely different views of art and politics. They did however unite in their ideas of war, and a cultural climate that stifled many forms of art and creativity. “Their work often expressed a longing for the lost world and an attempt to restore it with visions of nature and distant cultures.”
Around this same time, a separate movement was gaining momentum in New York, and would eventually migrate to San Francisco in the early 1950s. What would become the Beat movement grew directly out of the seedling of the San Francisco Renaissance. One of the members of the Beats, Amiri Baraka described the “so called Beat Generation” as, “… a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.” This small, close knit group of writers were interested in defying conventional writing and social conformity, as well as the long accepted traditions of literature. San Francisco itself played an integral part in the development of the literary movement.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet that was part of the Beat movement described how San Francisco locals “had a kind of island mentality, considering themselves San Franciscans first, on an island which wasn’t necessarily part of the United States.” Unlike the other major cities in the United States, San Francisco was founded not by merchants, but by the romanticized notion of finding gold in the hills of California. San Francisco has had a long history of literary development, going back to Mark Twain even. With the low rents, tolerant atmosphere and collection of small neighborhoods and communities, the city was extremely attractive for bohemians of all walks of life; for many it began to feel more like a small hip town, than a sprawling metropolis.
It was in one of these neighborhoods where the Beat movement established itself. North Beach became the headquarters of these literary bohemians. Much of that can be attributed to the appearance of City Lights Bookstore. After moving to San Francisco to teach sociology, Peter D. Martin created a magazine named ‘City Lights’. At the time, he published mainly up and coming Bay Area artists, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Martin would go on to expand City Lights into an all paperback bookshop, the first of it’s kind. It was also one of the first bookstores that stayed open not only seven days a week, but remained open until midnight. After being published in ‘City Lights’ magazine, and stumbling across Peter D. Martin’s all paperback bookshop, Lawrence Ferlinghetti joined with Peter D. Martin and became a partner in City Lights Books. Two years later Martin would sell his share to Ferlinghetti, making him full owner of City Lights. Along with Shigeyoshi Murao, an employee of City Lights, and later part owner, City Lights Publishing was launched under the same roof. “Right from the beginning,” says Ferlinghetti, “we had the slogan, ‘A Literary Meeting Place.'” Under Ferlinghetti’s guidance, the bookstore soon became a facet of literary life in San Francisco; it created a place where readers and writers alike could go to interact with others in the community, and to experience alternative and revolutionary types of books.
Ferlinghetti launched the publishing company with his own work, ‘Pictures of the Gone World‘. This was the first edition of what would become the Pocket Poets Series: small affordable books of poetry in paperback format to make them accessible to all types of people. Ferlinghetti believed strongly that art should be accessible to everyone, and not just a handful of elite intellectuals. City Lights Publishing would go on to publish many writers of the beat generation and other alternative writers that would not otherwise been published. The turning point in the life of City Lights can be traced back to a specific reading that Ferlinghetti attended. This reading was where Allen Ginsberg, an integral member of the Beat movement, read his now infamous poem “Howl”. Ferlinghetti had already read some of Ginsberg’s poems, and thought him immensely talented, but at the time Ferlinghetti was unable to publish his poems through City Lights Publishing. After hearing “Howl” Ferlinghetti telegraphed Ginsberg saying, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do we get the manuscript?” The publication of “Howl” and the supreme court case that followed, put City Lights on the map as a place for alternative and counter cultural writings.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
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