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The State | COLUMN ONE

City Lights Illuminates the Past

For 50 years, the bookstore of the Beats has been at the heart of San Francisco's literary life. Its founder hopes to ensure it survives him.

May 27, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The gallery where Allen Ginsberg first read his seminal poem "Howl" is now a rug store, and the Vesuvio Cafe draws more out-of-towners than bohemians. Taggers have misspelled Neal Cassady's name in Jack Kerouac Alley. The Cellar, where jazzmen backed poets in the 1950s, is just another restaurant basement.

But for the most part, San Francisco does not turn loose of its heritage gently, and this year's case in point is the landmark bookstore at Broadway and Columbus Avenue. City Lights Books, the great Beat heart of literary San Francisco, celebrates its 50th anniversary next month.

"Fifty years," Lawrence Ferlinghetti, its poet-founder, mused recently, the sun slanting into his communal office.

His beard was white, his voice was faint and a silver stud winked from his 84-year-old earlobe. Downstairs, where other stores would have put bestsellers, signs encouraged readers to check out Jean Genet's 1986 "Prisoner of Love" and James Tracy's 2002 "Civil Disobedience Handbook." A goateed kid wooed his nose-pierced girlfriend with "Love Is a Dog From Hell" by Charles Bukowski. Books, and only books, crammed every ledge and crevice. A tourist asked in vain to buy "some kind of bumper sticker."

"Fifty years," Ferlinghetti said, his pale eyes merry. "That's a long time standing on the same street corner, isn't it?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Neal Cassady -- In Wednesday's Section A, a correction on Tuesday's Column One article about City Lights bookstore in San Francisco referred to Neal Cassady as a poet. Cassady was not known as a poet; his main claim to fame was as a memoirist and Beat muse.

The West Coast has older bookstores, bigger bookstores, cleaner and better-lighted bookstores, but none as improbably famous as City Lights. Launched on a shoestring, pillaged by shoplifters, busted three times for publishing and selling books that authorities deemed immoral, it has nonetheless managed to achieve a stature not even Ferlinghetti could have predicted.

Even as the bookstore has flourished, however, the city that produced it has profoundly changed. North Beach, then populated by Beats, is now dominated by tourists. Most of the writers who made City Lights' reputation are gone. San Francisco's literary scene has scattered, and its artists have yet to recover from the crippling rent hikes of the dot-com era.

Ferlinghetti, who is so closely associated with the store that it is impossible to think of them separately, had a heart bypass operation several years back. Although he now is in good health, and the store has for years been run by others, passage in all its forms has become this anniversary's poignant subtext.

"City Lights is practically the only thing left of San Francisco's once-flourishing North Beach-based literary culture," said California State Librarian Kevin Starr. "But what's happening there is a question, not just about the place's future but about that of the city's culture, because Lawrence belongs to that culture.

"And that question is, is San Francisco just a boutique city? A theme park? Or do creative forces still coalesce there?"

It is a big question to hang on a mere corner bookstore, but City Lights has been more than a bookstore since its opening day. To visitors, it is a North Beach icon. To bookworms, it is a literary mecca. To baby boomers, it is a way-back machine to their discovery of "On the Road" or Zap Comix. To bums, it is where a lost soul could come in from the cold fog and sit reading for hours, free.

Booksellers, meanwhile, hold it up as a case study in the plight and pluck of independent bookstores. City Lights' profit this year will be "maybe a thousand dollars," said Nancy Peters, who became a partner in the bookstore in the mid-1980s and handles its day-to-day operations.

The tourism slump, combined with competition from chains and a seismic retrofitting that necessitated a yearlong shutdown of most of the building in 2000, slowed business so that, for a while, she said, she feared she might have to lay off some of the store's 15 employees.

But even in the store's fattest years, Peters said, it cleared only about $20,000. Customers stole books prolifically, sometimes selling them on street corners a block away. Even the Beat poet Gregory Corso once broke in and emptied the cash box, she said. City Lights was among the last major stores in the city to install equipment near the doorway to deter theft. For years, a sign warned patrons: "If you get caught stealing books, the police will not be called. You will be publicly shamed."

More costly, however, has been the store's refusal to court the masses with, say, Danielle Steel or stuffed Harry Potter owls or guides to the Atkins Diet. Though San Franciscans spend more per capita on books than residents of any other U.S. city, even the locals have only so much in common with City Lights' inventory. Francis Ford Coppola said he once went in looking for a book on conservative author Ayn Rand "and was told in no uncertain terms that they didn't and wouldn't carry it."

"I just figured it was just their zealot book buyer," he said.

But Ferlinghetti explained: "We never considered it a business. It was a way of life."

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