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City Lights Books

Chapter 2: Elaine finds her Future

April 22, 2007|Lynell George | Lynell George is a senior writer for West.

All this was before--before Adler Alley had been rechristened Kerouac, before the Condor Club tossed its kitschy sign (complete with stripper Carol Doda's flashing red pasties) and long before anyone, anywhere, would have the temerity to open a "Beat Museum." This earlier chapter, Elaine Katzenberger explains, was back when North Beach's only monument to itself wasn't a "museum" at all, just a scattering of mementos: a couple of wild bars and boisterous cafes and, of course, poet-activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti's lively, literary meeting place, City Lights Books.

Back when Katzenberger landed here in San Francisco in the '80s, a high school valedictorian from Danbury, Conn., who'd dropped out of both Williams College and Berkeley--"still searching"--she wasn't plugged in to what was going on in the quirky little bookshop. "That store, this corner, was like a vortex, though," she says from her seat in a second-floor alcove in Vesuvio's, one of those old wild bars. She orbited this intersection, that store, for years: worked as a bartender right here and later at a little beer joint around the corner while she studied painting and tried to figure out her next move.

It's all a bit strange, Katzenberger admits--at this moment in particular--contemplating the very near future from the vantage of her past. Many a night she stood behind the long stretch of a bar downstairs, serving beers or bourbons, neat, offering a glass of water or simply patience to the more volatile "customers," all the while only half-registering the view: the scruffy bookshop across Adler. There they'd be, the kids with knapsacks posing for snapshots in front of the gilt-lettered windows, the tourists struggling with loaded shopping bags, her own patrons settling in at a window table and, with a flex of both wrists, loosening the spine of a just-purchased paperback.

Back in those days, then-manager Richard Berman would frequently stop in for coffee or a drink and urge her to apply for a job at City Lights. She shrugged him off time and again: She had traveling to do. She never supposed that one day she'd be on the other side of the alley, behind that counter, or eventually upstairs, working in the publishing offices, or, for that matter, at 47, still on the same corner, watching the same curious pilgrims drift in from the world over, still taking snapshots, buying books.

Everything Katzenberger revisits this evening, each memory she holds up for inspection, seems to be saying, "Am I doing this or is this happening to me?" For all her escapes--to Morocco, to massage school--just how did she happen to stay put on this corner for 20 years? And now, perhaps, for 20 more? In a matter of hours, she will become City Lights Booksellers & Publishers' new executive director. It's a management shift that might seem like marginalia but is something quite significant: Katzenberger will be the one leading City Lights into the future. And she's spooked.

"I'm not a Beat icon! I'm not Lawrence! I'm Elaine! I don't have a little white beard," she says in a quiet, almost sing-song voice, as if reciting a mantra. "But menopause might take care of that," she cracks. "I've given Lawrence my 20s, 30s and now my 40s. I just kept asking myself, when we started talking about this, 'Is there anything else that you want to do? Anything else at all? Because if there is, you'd better do it now, because if you choose this, this will be it. It's done.'"

The shift--"the transition"--has been a delicate, years-long dance, stepping around feelings, trying not to bump into egos. Imagine, she suggests, "having Lawrence pipe up during a meeting and say something like, 'Why is everybody looking through me like I'm a ghost?'" And just to ratchet things up a bit--particularly if one is feeling superstitious--this week already has an off-kilter feel to it: a freak landslide just around the corner, a full moon due by the weekend. "After the landslide, it was really interesting to see who evacuated, the people spilling out on the street. The girls at Showgirls, a lot of Asians, old Italians," she says. "People who have been here forever but who never talk to one another. There they were, together. A beautiful North Beach moment. Remnants of the village are still here. That lives on. But after that is gone, it's gone."

Temporality is one of the many things she's wrestling with. That and even more amorphous, uncategorizable aspects of life, both hers and the store's, this neighborhood's. "I mean, I don't want people walking around saying, 'Oh yes, City Lights! That was a great place until Elaine broke it.'"

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