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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

There are many ways in which you could define the Bay Area: through its ubiquitous high-tech start-ups or its cathedrals to California cooking (Chez Panisse in Berkeley, for starters) or through its abundance of natural beauty and its sushi bars (one, not far from City Lights, advertises raw fish "Like Mom Used to Make"). Irreverence, independent-mindedness and a hunger for far-off cultures have defined it ever since people began streaming into the area in 1849 in search of new fortunes from gold, and a settlement of 812 souls became within two years a city of almost 25,000, many from China, Korea and Australia, clustered around more than 1,000 gambling houses.

Nowadays, the independent bookstore might be an emblem of this. Just off Valencia Street, some blocks away, is a bookshop that offers an hour of Zen meditation before it opens on Saturdays; across the bay in Corte Madera is constantly exploding Book Passage, a mini-empire that runs trips to Italy and writing classes and has almost an entire building devoted to travel. New bookshops are appearing as quickly around the Bay Area as they're closing everywhere else.

But City Lights is the grand old daddy of eternal youth. Its founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, confessed some years ago to still writing poems. Now he'll be celebrating his 95th birthday on Monday, having seen a hundred revolutions (the Beats, the hippies, the struggle for gay rights, the environmental movement and now techno-gizmos 1.0 and 2.0) come and go, each changing the world a little. When I wrote him a fan letter in my teens — I used to delight in reading his poems from the chapel lectern in our 15th century English classroom — he took the time to write back to tell me that if I wanted to meet poets, I could drop by his shop any time.

Nowadays, a large sign in the shop announces, "Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport." One section downstairs, in the dense section devoted to the arts (and sociology and travel), is called green politics. I happened to be looking for an obscure memoir by a film critic in New York, and when I mentioned it to a passing figure, he disappeared into an office and spent many minutes trying to track it down. As he did, I lost myself in shelves devoted to urban theory and Mexican history and cultural criticism, though I couldn't for the life of me find the section that is often loudest and largest in many a 21st century bookshop: autobiographies.

There are certain beloved writers — including Alexander McCall Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri — that I'd expect to find in any independent bookshop. But City Lights is not like any bookshop I know. I couldn't count on finding these kinds of authors there, but I could expect to find books I'd never see outside a university library or a secondhand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. After 60 years, it somehow remains radical, ahead of the curve and fresher — more clearly in love with the word — than any other bookshop I know.

As I walked back onto the street, after hours of immersion in what felt like a teeming, nondigital mind, I looked again at the woman at the cash register, who was unapologetically dismissing customers in search of memoirs. The lipsticked, shaven-headed, fey figure dealing out snark turned out to be a man. Or at least someone in transition.

Shocks, transformations, even workers who take you aback more than once in a single evening are what makes City Lights as great a sight, as well as a call to new thinking, as the constantly shifting metropolis around it. San Francisco can be hard to take in all at once; its epicenter and symbol — City Lights — can be the perfect way to imbibe the local spirit in a single evening. At the entrance to the fiction room, some wise soul has scribbled, perfectly, "Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here."

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