A Literary Meeting Place: The History Behind City Lights Bookstore

 A Literary Meeting Place: The History of City Lights Bookstore


City Lights Bookstore

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.

Members of the Beat Generation gathered in front of City Lights Bookstore.

Members of the Beat Generation gathered in front of City Lights Bookstore.

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.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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.

Because of it’s explicit and incendiary content, Ferlinghetti anticipated that along with the publishing of “Howl” there would likely be complications with the law. He sent the “Howl” manuscript to a press in London, and in 1957 customs officials seized 520 copies of the book of Ginsberg’s poems on claims of obscenity. Not long after, Shigeyoshi Murao, along with Ferlinghetti, were both arrested on charges of obscenity for publishing and selling Ginsberg’s “Howl and other Poems”.
Their arrest would lead to a court case that would bring large parts of the literary community together in a defense of their right to free and creative speech.
Jake Ehrlich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's defense lawyer during the obscenity trial.

Jake Ehrlich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s defense lawyer during the obscenity trial.

Throughout the course of the obscenity trial against Ferlinghetti and Murao, there were at least nine literary experts that testified on behalf of “Howl”. Book review editors, the American Civil Liberties Union, and members of the national world of poetry stood behind Ferlinghetti and Murao. On October 3rd, Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn ruled that “Howl” had “…redeeming social importance”, that it had not been written with lewd intent, and therefore could not be considered to be obscene. The publication of “Howl” and the trial surrounding it established City Lights Publishers as “one of the nation’s essential outlets for poetry and literature”,  it’s commitment to innovative and progressive ideas, and its resistance to forces of conservatism and censorship.
As Laura J. Miller discusses in her book, Reluctant Capitalists, in the post war era of the 20th century, a new generation of bookseller emerged. This new group of booksellers were “…less interested than booksellers of the past in telling customers what books were or were not good for them” (Miller 60). From the very beginning of his book selling career, Ferlinghetti thought it strange and odd for someone to tell another person what they should or should not read. Instead, he created a space where “the public [was] being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern.” City Lights mission was never to educate the low brow people of San Francisco and beyond, but to create a comfortable environment in which the literary enthusiasts of all ages and generations and education levels could gather and not only enjoy literature, but to push the boundaries of what good literature was defined as being. A place is simply a place until someone gives a specific meaning to that place; until City Lights, San Francisco was simply an area which housed many bohemians and writers (Cresswell 2). But through City Lights, Ferlinghetti was able to create a place that was able to siphon the new and the interesting and the alternative literature into a space that would resonate throughout the country. Even on into the 1970s, City Lights carried the earliest gay and lesbian publications showing that “whatever develops in street and punk culture in the future will, if it has any remote connection to words, likely be found at City Lights” (McNally).
If we were to define cultural leadership as “…adding to the existing diversity of literary voices…” as many book professionals do, then City Lights has been an integral part of adding to the literary voices that are not bestsellers, but have immense cultural value (Miller 62). City Lights has become a beacon for those who not only enjoy reading alternatives to the nation wide bestsellers, but those who create these works. This community has expanded from the days of the Beat generation into a nation wide community of readers, many of whom will flock to City Lights to experience the source of today’s alternative literature of the past and present.


McNally, Dennis. “The Beat Goes On.” Mother Jones 28.4 (2003): 76. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.

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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