“Have a Seat and Read a Book” – City Lights Bookstore
While I have never been inside of City Lights Bookstore, based on pictures, articles, and blog posts by people who have visited the store, I’ve been able to form a picture in my mind. Having previously been an all paperback bookstore that only inhabited a small space in a triangular building, City Lights now occupies all three floors of the Artigues Building. Over the years, they kept expanding the bookstore into the spaces other vendors moved out of.
This is what I imagine City Lights Bookstore to look like. Through the front window, one can see shelves upon shelves of books. This front room is the main Fiction Section. City Lights claims to have the “finest fiction by American, English, and European writers, magazines and journals, and art books,” as they display on their website. Here one can also find the pieces published by the City Lights Publication. Like chain bookstores, it has some tables and shelves for big name publishers to display their bestselling hardcover books, but like an independent bookstore, City Lights prides itself in having its shelves stocked with books from less known small presses and specialty publishers. By supplying all of these sorts of books, City Lights can serve their specialty niche market, while still appealing to any of the tourists who visit the store. One time visitors can buy a well-known bestseller, while loyal customers who plan to visit often can always find something unique that they might not be able to find elsewhere.
The far right side of the first floor is known as the “Third-World Fiction Room.” Here are books written by writers from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean and Pacific Islands can be found, along with many self-published books from these sorts of writers. If City Lights is so proud to have these diverse books, it makes me wonder why they would hide it in a separate room from the other fiction books. Maybe City Lights wants to glorify this section. It is on a different level of importance than the other fiction books, thus it deserves its own room. Or, maybe City Lights is trying to keep these books away from the casual reader. It could be like Roger from Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, where City Lights is keeping books away from those who aren’t ready for them yet. Only readers who have visited City Lights many times who would go looking for books by these kinds of writers would be worthy of reading them. A random tourist looking for any old book isn’t ready for what these Third-World Fiction books might contain.
The basement is the Nonfiction Section. Here one can find all the usual Nonfiction categories: Philosophy, Religion, and those sorts. City Lights also claims to have unusual and unique categories such as Muckraking, Commodity Aesthetics, Topographies, Evidence, People’s History, Class War, Stolen Continents, and other categories one wouldn’t find anywhere else. These are the categories that really help show what City Lights is all about. While City Lights does have some books that any casual reader might read, they do want to serve their niche market. Their niche market would be into books about counter cultural ideas, much like the ideas one would find in categories with these titles. Again, why would City Lights hide these books all the way in the basement? Perhaps because many of their nonfiction titles contain controversial ideas that the general reader would feel intimidated or uncomfortable to find. Because it is a bookstore, and thus a business, City Lights does need to make a profit. They can’t afford to scare away every customer. While they would rather build a community of readers who love controversial titles, they still need to profit off of the regular bestsellers. They hide these titles away from where the passerby would be looking, so as not to scare off potential customers. Once customers work their way through the shelves of books and delve into other sections, they have already, slowly, been introduced to the heart of what City Lights stands for. Once a visitor has walked through the door, they have a higher chance of buying something. If the storefront scares people away, City Lights would have difficulty selling books, and staying open.
The second floor of City Lights contains the Poetry Room, housing all of the poetry City Lights has to offer. Being a part of the Beats Generation, one is bound to find poetry from that era, as well as more recent, but still controversial pieces. City Lights claims that it has the largest collection of poetry in any bookstore. The Poetry Room has not only shelves of books, but a table and chairs for people to sit around and stay for a while so they can read what City Lights has to offer. In fact, in many of the nooks and crannies of the bottom two floors there are chairs scattered about for people who want to just sit down and read a book. It is a very inviting atmosphere for anyone who loves reading. The poetry room contains not only poetry, but books about poetry. This is also the space where many of City Lights’ events and readings are held. It appears to be a very important place for City Lights, so why would they keep all of this important work on the second floor? Because it’s on the top floor, I wonder if they are trying to glorify the poetry and the Beats Literature. It is on a higher floor than all the other work, and it serves as the atmosphere for important community events. The poetry is what City Lights really cares about, and wants to show off to their community. However, one needs to be part of their “little club” of like-minded readers before they can fully enjoy what City Lights has to offer.
Despite trying to please both audiences, the common reader and their niche market, City Lights manages to capture the feel of an independent bookstore. It is filled with bookshelves upon bookshelves so close together that it must be cramped and hard to move around. Chairs are placed all around, and signs urging people to think and read hang on every wall. City Lights says that it wants to feel like an old independent paperback bookstore, that sort of cluttered but homey feel where you can see books everywhere. It is much like Miller talks about in Reluctant Capitalists. “Common to many bookstores,” she writes, “are the tables and chairs that are scattered about the premises. With these, customers are invited to settle in for a good read or chat with friends” (Miller 125). Miller also describes why people frequent independent bookstores: because they can get more than just a book, they can get a community experience (Miller 121). From the layout of the store, this definitely seems to be what City Lights is aiming for. While the sections that the common community would be more interested in are hidden away from plain sight, it is merely their way of continuing to build up their community. The fact that City Lights Bookstore has three whole floors crammed full of books is a marvel in itself, and certainly continues to be a community center for readers both in the area and all over the country.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. New York: Avon Books, 1983.