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City Lights Bookstore has the true beat of San Francisco

For decades, San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore has nurtured independent thinkers, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac included. And it remains ahead of the curve — and clearly in love with the word.

March 21, 2014|By Pico Iyer

SAN FRANCISCO — To get to one of the spiritual centers of San Francisco — a perfect microcosm of the city of evergreen revolutions — turn left after the high-rising office buildings downtown, saunter past Francis Ford Coppola's emerald-shaded seven-story American Zoetrope mock pagoda and halt just past the spot where Columbus Avenue meets Jack Kerouac Alley.

Or perhaps approach the official historical landmark by way of Grant Avenue, at the heart of San Francisco's Chinatown, wander past a long line of slightly kitschy tourist shops displaying quotes from Lao Tse and Jimi Hendrix and try to ignore the eco-conscious green Hello Kittys in store windows.

Out now onto busy Broadway, a raffish drag with Italian cafes on one side and tatty, once state-of-the-art topless parlors on the other, you find yourself in North Beach, an area (true to San Franciscan logic) not close to any beach at all. There, commanding a whole (tiny and irregular) city block, is the place that has for decades embodied and transformed the very notion of that endangered species, the independent bookshop. When I walked into City Lights Bookstore not long ago, I would have been surprised if the woman behind the cash register didn't sport a shaved head, a leopard-skin pillbox hat (in tribute to Bob Dylan?) and two separate pairs of glasses climbing up her forehead.

If San Francisco's great tradition is the overturning of tradition, City Lights is one of its essential monuments, a literally triangular storefront that never begins to look square. The first volumes that greeted me were by André Breton and Antonin Artaud, celebrated mischief makers from more than half a century ago; every book displayed in the window, in fact, was at once highly serious and not to be found in any other shop window I could imagine. Very quickly you see that City Lights is a little like that ideal, book-loving friend — imagine James Wood filtered through the eclectic, all-American, hip omnivorousness of David Foster Wallace — who has impeccable taste but knows that the real classics are books you've never heard of.

Yes, the shop's contents are divided into sections, but they aren't the ones you'd expect to find in Barnes & Noble: One is titled Anarchy, another Muckraking. One is denominated Stolen Continents. An entire large bookshelf is devoted to banned books (and impishly contains "The Great Gatsby" and "Madame Bovary"). And one set of shelves, reaching from floor to ceiling, contains books put out by the bookshop's imprint. In an age when publishing is said to be dying, City Lights is busy bringing out short stories by Ry Cooder; fiction by the undying hero of small presses, Charles Bukowski; and works by such graying revolutionaries as Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky.

This hunger for revolt is especially impressive in a place that could very easily rest on its laurels. It was at City Lights, after all, that Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac and Kenneth Rexroth found ways of making their voices heard. There's a Beat Museum now across Broadway from the bookshop, complete with the 1949 Hudson featured in the recent film of "On the Road," driven into the store by the film's main actor. But City Lights is the real Beat Museum, because it at once embodies the spirit that turned America on its head in the 1950s and invigoratingly carries it into a new generation. At the Beat Museum, you pay $8 to enter an inner sanctum of manuscripts and artifacts; at City Lights, you can breathe the air of revolution for free.

Not many years ago, such bastions of independent spiritedness and uncertain profits could be found everywhere, from Hatchard's on Piccadilly in London to Shakespeare & Co. across from Notre Dame in Paris. But in recent times, though those two survive, some of the hoariest sanctuaries of good taste and writerly sympathies, such as the Gotham Book Mart in New York and the Village Voice in Paris, have fallen victim to the irresistible pull of e-books and online retailers.

In truth, even megastores have not been able to withstand such forces. The small miracle of City Lights is that it seems to survive — even to thrive — without stocking "Fifty Shades of Grey" and Dan Brown; its second floor is given over to that most unsellable form of literature — poetry — and to get to it you have to walk through a room devoted to fiction, much of it difficult and European, and then a room given over to works from Asia and Latin America.

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