Dissent is not Un-American: City Lights Bookstore History.


As much as I wonder about the current state of affairs at City Lights Bookstore, I also wonder about its past. I knew some of the basics, but the details until now had been fuzzy for me. In looking into the history of City Lights, I kept thinking about how the bookstore reaches its community.

CL1It became apparent to me quickly that City Lights’ history is a product of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s influence as an owner. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers in 1919 and after serving in World War Two, earning a masters from Columbia and a Phd from the university of Paris, he relocated to San Francisco in 1950. It was in 1953 that he met and founded City Lights Bookstore with Peter Martin. Martin had been running a magazine (City Lights Magazine) and wanted to open an all paperback bookstore. The two men invested $500 each and City Lights Bookstore, the first and only paperback bookstore in America was started in one cramped corner of the Artigues Building on Columbus Avenue (“Lawrence”; Emblidge).

So right from the get-go with City Lights there was an attempt to connect to the community. Paper-backs were not highly thought of during this time. They were the black sheep of the book world because they were so cheap and accessible to everybody, particularly those people not a part of the genteel culture. A booksellers choices about “what books to carry and sell are shaped” by how the seller views themselves as “taking an active role in guiding the reading” of the customers (Miller 55). By choosing to carry only paperbacks, Ferlinghetti was establishing that his bookstore would be geared toward a more middle-class customer. It is likely that he was giving his customers access to literature that may have otherwise unavailable for them due to the fact that at the time there were a large number of Italian immigrants living in the North Beach area (“North Beach”).  Thus in a small way Ferlinghetti was not only reaching out to appeal to his non-genteel neighbors, but ‘guiding’ what his customers were reading.

The partnership only lasted until 1955; Martin sold his share to Ferlinghetti and moved back to New York City. In that same year, Ferlinghetti launched the Pocket Poets Series which is exactly what it sounds like: books of poetry that are pocket sized. Their size made them affordable poetry books, meaning that for the people who would buy such books this was their first exposure to avant-garde type poetry. For it was avant-garde poetry being published; the first volume was a collection of Ferlinghetti’s own work as pictured at right in the re-issue, and following issues included poems by Gregory Corso, and a work of translation by Kenneth Rexrothpocketlawrennce By publishing such works Ferlinghetti was staying true to his own anarchistic beliefs. As he once put it, “[t]he function of the independent press (besides being essentially dissident) is still to discover, to find the new voices and give voice to them” (“Collection”) .  These poets that Ferlinghetti  published in the Pocket Poets were unable to get their work published by the other, larger publishing houses due to their content. By publishing them he was not only staying true to his dissident beliefs about publishing, but adding to the “diversity of literary voices” (Miller 62). Doing so means those voices could be heard not only by their friends but, because Ferlinghetti carried their books in his store, by anybody who came in and picked the book up. Could this be seen as playing into the traditional view of the bookstore/bookseller as being “an institution that worked to educate and uplift the population”(Miller 58)? Possibly, as he’s not only helping bring modern poetry to his immediate community but also serving the literary community by publishing them at all. Though I think we’d all hesitate to label Ferlinghetti as traditional.

The following year on November 1, 1956 was when the undoubtedly most infamous Pocket Poets Series book was published: Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg. The video below is a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading the title poem from the book, which is the best way to experience it, since listening to Ginsberg read the poem at Gallery Six is how Ferlinghetti decided to publish it.

While there was no immediate uproar about its contents, the condemnation did not wait too long. In March of 1957 there was a shipment of the books arriving from the producer in England detained in customs for containing obscene content. Those charges were dropped because the federal authorities refused to support the findings of the officer who originally detained the shipment. But, in June of that same year local San Francisco police arrested and brought up charges against Ferlinghetti for selling obscene literature. Only Ferlinghetti was ever tried because fortuitously Ginsberg was in Tangiers at the time. Ferlinghetti was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union who brought in pro-bono lawyers and literary experts (ie. Literature professors from UC Berkley, etc) to his defense so that in a land-mark ruling municipal Judge Clayton Horn declared Howl to have redeeming social value and thus be protected under the First Amendment (Emblidge).

I had always known that City Lights and Ferlinghetti were the ones who fought obscenity for the Beats, for Howl, for us really,  but the Beat/punk/conspiracy theorist in me just assumed that it was the government who had done this, not the local cops. The federal authorities had the chance to attack City Lights but wouldn’t do it, but the local cops who Ferlinghetti might have bumped into at the supermarket were the ones who decided to make arrests. To me this reflected a lack of local support. If the local cops are the ones who wanted to stop the sale of Howl then undoubtedly the surrounding community was unhappy with what was being sold by this bookstore. If a bookseller is supposed to know their “locale by being intimately involved with it,” how involved could Ferlinghetti have been if he was arrested by the community in which his bookstore was located (Miller 83)?

articleantibeatTo be fair to Ferlinghetti this was the 1950s, the beginning of the Cold War. Anything even the slightest bit not conforming to ‘America’ was treated as suspicious and loathsome (see McCarthyism).  With On The Road published 1957 as well there was a rising national sentiment against the Beats.  So there could have been pressure from outside forces on the local police to do something about the bookstore.

It is also probable that in reality Ferlinghetti did not necessarily have his local community in mind when publishing and fighting for Howl but rather the larger literary community. As opposed to the rising trend of consumerism, selling things and “accept[ing] no responsibility for the content” Ferlinghetti functioned as an interpreter  “between the need of the people of [the] community and the literature of [his] time” (MacLeish 16). The Beatniks life and work were in reaction to the society in which they lived, and clearly with all the work they were churning out their voices were in need of being heard. Ferlinghetti was ready to provide a way to let them be heard.

As MacLeish predicted in his speech 15 years earlier, there was a return to the bookseller viewing and selling his books as though it were a responsibility with Ferlinghetti, and so there was an “increase in the power and influence of printed books” (MacLeish 17). The ruling of Howl as not being obscene, as having redeeming social value, cleared the way for a multitude of books to be published that could otherwise have been lost to the literary community, and us all. When City Lights turned 60 this past summer the current executive director and publisher Elaine Katzenberger stated that the goal of City Lights with its books, both the published ones and the ones in the bookstore, was never to gain a profit, but rather to “to sound the alarm against the deepening consumerist slumber and the violence of capitalism run amok” (Kelly).  City Lights has done just that, starting with Howl and moving forward. And since City Lights bought the building the store occupies in 1999, it seems that we are in for many years of dissidence and new voices to come.

60 year banner




“Collection: City Lights Pocket Poets.” City Lights Bookstore. http://www.citylights.com/collections/?Collection_ID=305

Emblidge, David. “City Lights Bookstore: ‘A Finger in the Dike.’” Publishing Research Quarterly. December 1, 2005 .

Kelly, Claire. “City Lights Celebrates 60 Years.” Melville House. June 23, 2013

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti.” City Lights Bookstore. http://www.citylights.com/ferlinghetti/

MacLeish, Archibald. “A Free Man’s Book.” Annual Banquet of the American Booksellers Association May 6th 1942. Mount Vernon, New York: The Peter Pauper Press.

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

“North Beach.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Beach,_San_Francisco



All images from either City Lights website, Facebook or Pinterest.