City Lights Present Place and People
That, is City Lights Booksellers and Publishers and although the image is not a recent one, the only thing that has changed is that the banners have gone away. I could not help but choose this image though because for me it gets at why I know anything about this bookstore at all: dissent from the norm aka Beat Life. My ties to City Lights began when I bought myself Allen Ginsberg’s book Kaddish and Other Poems. That is really when it began for me with City Lights because after Ginsberg I went on to devour books by Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, and other Beatniks. I’ve yet to make it out to legendary San Francisco, not sure if I ever will, but that just leaves me wondering what it is that I would find if I did ever make it out there? What is City Lights like in person? What is the area like? What are the people like?
City Lights sits really close to the divide of North Beach and the Chinatown area of San Francisco being located on the corner of Broadway and Columbus. North Beach and San Francisco both come with certain kinds of stereotypes. And where the bookstore is actually located is pretty much literally a crossroads of cultures, at least according to the map.
But who are the people that are actually there? I wanted to get past those stereotypes to the people. I wanted to know about the people that actually live there, who are they and what they might be like. I was startled to find out that the folks of North Beach are not all that well educated. How is a bookstore supposed to connect to it’s people if they are under-educated and possibly associate bookstores with elitist culture, or at the very least a culture that may be beyond their reach? How do they get those people to connect the bookstore and make it mean something to them, make it their place? (Creswell 8). This line of thinking took me in two different directions, the first being about how the bookstore reaches its’ immediate community (North Beach) through what it publishes, and how the community reaches towards the bookstore and its fame.
From the educational information I wondered about what groups of people were living there, that is, what races might occupy the area (though I use race carefully since I do believe that race is really a social construction). Doing a little digging revealed that nearly half the population identifies as Asian, with the other large majority identifying as white, and a few other ‘minorities’ mixed in as well. This makes sense with Chinatown being right down the road. But if these are the people living in the area, in what way does the bookstore, one that is associated with a literary movement dominated by ‘whites,’ connect with these people?
Looking at the City Lights website in search of answers, I noticed its sections of books: ‘Asian American writing’, ‘African American writing’, ‘San Francisco literature and history’, and ‘Gay & Lesbian’ to name a few. By publishing literature that most probably addresses issues the people in North Beach would identify with, City Lights is clearly trying to create a community with these people through social bonds based on mutual support for social, political, and possibly even race issues (Miller 119).
This was when I started to size up the businesses in the area surrounding City Lights. There are, of course, your standard community businesses. There is a Wells Fargo after you pass the pizza shop sharing a wall with City Lights. There are several Asian-style food establishments and a few Italian ones both in the immediate vicinity as well up the road. In fact, a lot of the businesses actually have what I’m guessing is Chinese writing on or next to all their signs to cater to the Asian community. If you were to be brave and continue on Broadway and maybe even go onto Kearny, which parallels Columbus where City Lights is located, there are many, many “adult” stores, bars, and shall we say entertainment clubs? So basically City Lights is on the border of a seedy-area and given the Beats that just does not come as a surprise.
What comes as an interesting note is what some of the other establishments are doing. For instance, directly next to City Lights is a saloon called ‘Vesuvio.’ Their website brands them as ‘an historical monument to jazz, poetry, art, and the good life of the Beat Generation” while attracting a wide clientele base from artists, to off-duty exotic dancers to cab drivers to business people. They are sure to note on their website as well that Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac both used to hang out there.
Around the corner on Broadway is a little restaurant called ‘Naked Lunch.’ Smushed into the last corner of the building it shares with a much larger establishment, this lunch and dinner service place steals its’ name from the Beat writer William Burroughs’ arguably most famous novel. The small inside is decorated with pictures of famous jazz musicians.
On the same block as Naked Lunch is the Beat Museum. The title of it pretty much says it all: it’s a museum dedicated to the Beat Generation with all sorts of memorabilia like manuscripts, personal items, first editions etc. They even offer walking tours of North Beach that take you “in the footsteps of the Beat Generation!”
These are only the obvious, first-glance places, and some of the other places (including those strip clubs) are attempting to connect to some sort of past time. These places seem to be trying to establish a bond with bookstore through it’s roots in the community, as opposed to the other way around (Miller 121). And really, can you blame them for trying? Beat culture is still important to countless people to this day, and I can only imagine the kind of tourism the bookstore gets. Any business is good business and these places are going to want to capitalize on that, even if it means clinging to a by-gone time of a bunch of beat artists. City Lights is trying to carve itself into the “proper environment for the sale of books,” and at least part of the community is trying to carve itself into the proper business to attract modern Beatniks (Miller 40). And I’ll admit, as a partial modern Beatnik, other than those strip clubs I’m actually kind of digging the area.
North Beach Statistics, Race and Education graph:http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/North-Beach-San-Francisco-CA.html
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.
Vesuvio Cafe: http://www.vesuvio.com
Beat Museum: http://www.kerouac.com
Google Map screen caps.
City Lights bookstore:http://www.citylights.com/bookstore/