City Lights Bookstore – Present

City Lights is an independent bookstore in the heart of a rich and unique cultural district in San Francisco, California. Named for the Charlie Chaplin film, City Lights makes its home on 261 Columbus Street and is right on the border between North Beach and Chinatown. On top of that, Columbus Street itself is a diverse mix of culture, from Italian Restaurants to Beats Generation inspired clubs. City Lights Bookstore sits at the heart of all this, and truly is the center point of this cultural hub.

Since 1953, City Lights Bookstore has been in the same spot on Columbus Ave, steadily growing over the years. It was a success from the start, being one of the first paperback bookstores. The City of San Francisco acknowledges this, as it named City Lights Bookstore a San Francisco landmark in 2001.  The bookstore prides itself for sparking counter-cultural politics and being a focal point of the Beats Generation Culture in the area.

Neighborhood around City Lights Bookstore

Being so close to Chinatown, it is no surprise that the City Lights neighborhood would have a diverse ethnic background. In fact, as of 2009, Asians make up 30.7% of San Francisco’s Population. They have a higher percentage than Blacks, at 5.8%, Hispanics, at 14.4%, and 4% of other racial groups. The remaining 45.1% of the population is White. Most of the foreign born population is Asian as well, many of whose families came to San Francisco before 1990.

What does this say about City Lights Bookstore? For one, it is located in an area where Chinatown meets North Beach. The two culturally different areas do not clash, per say, but when one turns the corner towards Chinatown, the change is almost immediate. This Chinatown is one of the oldest in the country, having been established in 1848. It was there long before City Lights Bookstore had made its mark in San Francisco’s history. The areas that developed around the San Francisco Chinatown led to even more cultural diversity in the area.

Up the street from City Lights, one will come across many Pizza Shops and other Restaurants that advertise themselves as “Authentic Italian” such as E Tutto Qua, and Franchino. Further up is Trattoria Pinocchino and Colosseo Ristorante. Down the street there is a French Bakery, Brioche, and the Yokohama Japanese Restaurant. There are so many distinct cultures represented in this small area, based on food alone. On Columbus Ave, this is how the different cultures make themselves known in the area. They share what they know from their ancestors, and that just happens to be food. It certainly creates a friendly environment to walk around in and discover the different cultures in that small area.

The other distinct cultural representation in the area is in the nostalgia for the Beats Generation. The area around City Lights tries to bring you back to those times, and not just with the Beat Museum. On that corner of Columbus and Broadway, there is The Condor Club and the Roaring 20s, two different strip clubs. There are even more clubs for that sort of entertainment around the area. The two buildings seem like something from back in the day. They haven’t been modernized at all, and appear to be proud of it. Rather than being flashy and modern, they are flashy and vintage.

Roaring 20s Club

Next to City Lights is the Vesuvio Café, one that prides itself in the Beats Culture and Jazz music. Vesuvio takes pride in its customers, who are said to be “artists, chess players, cab drivers, seamen and business people, European visitors, off-duty exotic dancers and bon vivants from all walks of life” (“Vesuvio”). The Café also advertises the fact that Neal Cassady himself visited in 1955 and Jack Kerouac later in 1960.

Vesuvio Cafe and City Lights Bookstore

City Lights Bookstore is smack dab in the middle of all this mix of times and culture and it embraces it all. In fact, it is less that City Lights is trying to fit into the community like some bookstores. It is the community, and it helped mold the community. As Laura Miller states, “ when an independent bookseller speaks about serving her community, she is in part pointing to a fairly concrete entity – a bounded locality, whether neighborhood or town. But she is also conjuring up a vision of that locale that draws on other idealized qualities” (Miller 120). In City Lights’ case, they do not need to worry as much about constantly pleasing their neighborhood community. People from all over will simply come to City Lights and the area surrounding it because of what it stands for. The people who are drawn to this area will be in love with City Lights, no matter what. Miller also talks about bookstores as places for entertainment and how “bookstore events have the purpose of selling more books” (Miller 129). Again, City Lights goes against this idea. The events in and around the bookstore are to attract the people that want to be there, and build up a community of their perfect clientele. Their purpose is to sell books, but more so to attract the people that would be interested in their books, and keep the love of the Beats Generation going for years to come.

In the end, City Lights Bookstore really defines itself as a place. Cresswell defines place by many terms but “a site of multiple identities and histories” and “a uniqueness of place defined by its interactions” is what truly defines City Lights (Cresswell 74). This Columbus Avenue neighborhood blends together many different cultural identities, from Chinese, to Italian, and many different histories, from the Chinatown to the Beats. City Lights is also defined by the interactions of the people who flock to the area. They come to meet others like them, and City Lights Bookstore becomes an important place to them because of that.




Kinsella, Bridget. “City Lights’ Silver Lining.” Publishers Weekly. (2003): 25-27. Print.

Vigil, Delfin. “City Lights Bookstore.” San Francisco Chronicle. (2009): E6. Web. 12 Sep. 2013.


Racial Population Pie Chart: <>

Foreign Born Population Graph: <>


City Lights Bookstore: <>


Google Maps: Columbus Ave, Roaring 20s Club, Vesuvio Cafe and City Lights Bookstore.


“Vesuvio.” Vesuvio Cafe. N.p.. Web. 11 Sep 2013. <>.

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Cresswell, Tim. Place a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 74. Print.