YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Literary Landmark Gets S.F. Protection

Culture: The city is awarding official historic status to City Lights bookshop for its formative role in the Beat Generation explosion.


SAN FRANCISCO — Like its rumpled poet-owner, the famed City Lights bookstore has always been a bit of an eccentric.

Wedged into a cramped corner of Columbus Avenue, the shop founded by renowned Beat Generation poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has an oddball pie-slice shape, slanted checkered floors and triangular rooms, not to mention slipshod lighting with wiring running every which way.

"This is a wonderful old building," says Ferlinghetti, 81. "I love the place. It's meant so much to what we've tried to accomplish."

The North Beach bookshop, whose ramshackle shape might normally merit the notice of building inspectors, is instead about to be awarded the city's top aesthetic honor: historic landmark status.

The distinction isn't for memorable architecture but for the bookstore's counterculture history and role as the bohemian soul to a generation of avante garde San Francisco writers.

City Lights is the place where Ferlinghetti tested the 1st Amendment by selling Allen Ginsberg's angry X-rated poetry. For years it served as an artistic speak-easy where Beat writers such as crazy Jack Kerouac gave regular readings and where comics Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl popped in to bone up on new material.

"This bookstore is a cultural icon--in its heyday it put San Francisco on the map as the center of the leading literary movement of the day," said Tim Kelley, vice president of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board.

"Its funkiness conveys something about the operation itself. We're not talking about a Barnes & Noble here. And that's what we're celebrating."

Long fearful of being overrun by the ubiquitous chain booksellers, Ferlinghetti and City Lights co-owner Nancy Peters hope that the landmark status will ensure the survival of their 47-year-old store.

"It gives us insurance," said the white-bearded Ferlinghetti, looking dapper on a recent morning in his tiny hoop earring and red-framed glasses. "They're not going to start knocking down the walls of a city landmark."

Ferlinghetti, named in recent years San Francisco's first Poet Laureate, sought to ensure some stability when he and Peters bought the building in 1999, after decades of successive three-year leases. They have begun sprucing up the place with recessed lighting and earthquake retrofitting.

But some things will not change, such as the bookstore's reputation among its devotees as a hub for alternative writing and left-wing political thought.

"You walk in here and you feel the presence of all those wild young poets who were so full of themselves and their ideas," said Osha Neumann, a Berkeley resident. "This place is pure literary heaven."

The creative flame was lit in 1953 when the fledgling City Lights became an instant artistic happening. Open until midnight, the shop held readings by writers including Ferlinghetti, whose book, "A Coney Island of the Mind," remains one of America's best-selling volumes of poetry.

In 1957, Ferlinghetti and then-partner Shigeyoshi Muraro were arrested after City Lights published and sold Ginsberg's sexually graphic poem "Howl" to an undercover policeman. Both men were acquitted at a landmark trial that established new standards for judging literary obscenity.

Even as the Beat writers and their raucous readings faded into the past, the shop remained a beacon of dissent and nonconformity--what Peters calls "a pocket of deep literacy."

City Lights was the nation's first bookstore to sell only paperbacks and feature a section on green, or environmental, politics. It recently expanded its poetry section while other stores are shrinking theirs.

Today, there's a converted closet showcasing self-published books and sections devoted to muckraking, anarchism and "stolen continents," which features books on Western imperialism.

Ferlinghetti still receives letters from customers who say they got an informal education reading books in the City Lights basement, including some of those who were once down on their luck. "They admit to stealing books and say it had been in their conscience for all these years," Ferlinghetti said. "So they include a 10-dollar check."

For years, the shop admonished would-be thieves with a sign: "If you get caught stealing books, the police will not be called. You will be publicly shamed." Ferlinghetti said a manager once made good on the promise, pulling down the pants of a book burglar.

The poet continues the spirit with his own socially edged signs, such as "No shirt. No shoes. Full Service," "Printers ink is the greater explosive" and his favorite front door greeting: "Abandon all despair Ye who enter here."

Long known for its policy of accepting the homeless, who sometimes sleep in its aisles, the store is now resurrecting a policy of providing down-and-out writers and artists with a mailing address.

Los Angeles Times Articles