Celebrating 60 Years of City Lights, a Cultural and Historical Landmark

Benjamin Wright


“The Golden Age of City Lights continues!” says City Lights founder and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who celebrated his 94th birthday on March 24. This year marks the 60th Anniversary of City Lights Bookstore, a San Francisco historical landmark, and perhaps the best-known bookstore on this side of the Atlantic, what Shakespeare & Company (both its Sylvia Beach and George Whitman incarnations) was and is to writers, poets and intellectuals living in and visiting Paris. 


Sixty years ago Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin started the nation’s first all-paperbound bookshop, nestled in San Francisco’s North Beach community. It was the early years of the “paperback revolution,” and Martin and Ferlinghetti’s bookstore model was an initial spark of genius that would soon spread like wildfire. Other paperback bookstores started soon after City Lights opened its doors. By 1955, City Lights launched a publishing house. The following year it was shoved into the national limelight due to the Howl obscenity trial.


While other independent bookstores have closed their doors in recent years, and even as big chain stores have gone under (i.e., Borders) and continue to downsize (i.e., Barnes & Noble), City Lights has remained (not without some difficulties – at times the bookstore has borrowed from the publishing company, and vice versa, to ensure sustainability and the company bounced back from near financial ruin in 1984) and has even expanded several times over the years. In part, its longevity is owed to its singularity, a pioneer among booksellers, an enterprise that gave an early voice to the Beat generation, a champion of free speech and a publisher of the downtrodden, the outsiders and underdogs of society.


Martin left two years after the bookstore’s founding, and headed East to open the New Yorker Bookstore. Ferlinghetti bought out Martin’s share and took full control.  It was shortly after Martin left that Ferlinghetti began the publishing aspect of the business, which has published works by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski, Kenneth Rexroth and many others, including leftist social critics. In recent years City Lights started a third arm of its business, the City Lights Foundation. As a cultural beacon, City Lights was named a historical landmark in the City of San Francisco in 2001.


Recently, Highbrow Magazine spoke with City Lights’ Director of Publicity and Marketing, Stacey Lewis, who has worked at the bookstore for the past 18 years. Additional questions were answered via email by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, painter, bookstore founder and defender of free speech. They addressed questions about City Lights’ beginning, its longevity and its development in recent years.


Radical Beginnings 


While Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s radicalism has developed over the years, Martin had it in his genes. As Ferlinghetti explains, “Pete Martin was the son of an Italian anarchist, Carlo Tresca, and I was getting my anarchist ideas from Kenneth Rexroth. We had a leftist political bias from the beginning.” In a recent conversation with Christopher Bollen of Interview magazine, Ferlinghetti added that whereas many people become more conservative with age, he has moved, ideologically, in the opposite direction.


City Lights took its roots in North Beach, bordering Chinatown, a diverse area that was home to many Italian San Francisco immigrants at the time. It took its name from a magazine run by Martin, which – though it folded after only a handful of issues – published the early work of Bay Area writers like Ferlinghetti, Pauline Kael and Robert Duncan. The magazine’s title, and later the bookstore’s name, paid homage to Charlie Chaplin’s second-to-last silent film, made in 1931, which was released to audiences as talkies were eclipsing the silent art form in the world of cinema.


There was always something anarchistic about Chaplin’s Tramp, something progressive and hopeful (not to mention the hopeful optimism of making a silent film as talkies had already become the new dominant medium in film). As Chaplin described him in his autobiography, “You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear – but only in extreme anger!” The tramp lived for the moment and was never discouraged for long by the forces of the world that worked against him. Via email, Ferlinghetti explained: “The Chaplin film with the iconic Little Man really represented the outcast, the outsider, the shoeless man in our society,” things that resonated with him and Martin, and, one would assume, with the thriving Italian immigrant community in North Beach.



For a bookstore that would become associated with the Beat generation, progressive politics, socialism and anarchism, with freedom of speech and anti-censorship, not a more fitting figure could be linked to this image than that of the Little Tramp, the poet and a dreamer living for the day, always rising up, dusting off his trousers, and going forward in hopeful defiance against a world that continually spits in his face.


It was extremely ambitious to start an all-paperback bookstore in the first place. According to Ferlinghetti, “City Lights Bookstore was entirely unique from the beginning. Before then, all bookstores closed at 5 PM or so and were never open on the weekends. . . .Peter Martin's idea was brilliant, the first all-paperback store (at the very beginning of the "paperback revolution") open at all hours, including Saturday and Sunday — to past midnight. Bookstores didn't generally have a periodical section, but City Lights had a big periodical corner, with all the latest literary and political magazines, from the far left to the far right, including the first gay mags,” such as the Daughters of Bilitis’ The Ladder.   


If this were not enough, publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and defending that decision in an era of conservatism, during the dark American Middle Ages of McCarthyist paranoia and anti-rock n’ roll crusades, was not just hopeful, but idealistic, and downright heroic. City Lights emerged the victor, dusted itself off and waddled into the sunset, optimistic, but uncertain, as all are, of what joys or sorrows tomorrow may bring.


The Significance of Howl


While the idea of starting an all-paperback bookshop was Martin’s, the publishing company was Ferlinghetti’s realized dream, started just after Martin’s departure. As City Lights’ Stacey Lewis explains, “[Ferlinghetti] had seen that model in Europe when he was there overseas on the GI Bill. . . . The idea was to use some of the money [from the bookstore] to publish, and that continues on to this day.”


The first work that City Lights published was Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World, the first work in the Pocket Poets Series. This was soon followed with works of poetry by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen and Allen Ginsberg (and, later, works by poets such as Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima and Jack Hirschman). 

Howl, Ginsberg’s magnum opus, is perhaps the best-known work in this series, not only because of its cultural significance but because of the reaction it received from the powers that be. Upon hearing an early 1955 reading of the work, Ferlinghetti became eager to publish it. Ginsberg was new and different in not just the message of his poetry, but in the style and tone of his work.   


It could easily be argued that City Lights’ reputation was cemented with the obscenity trial that followed from its decision to publish Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems in 1956. City Lights, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were thrust into the media spotlight when Ferlinghetti and then-bookstore manager (a role he served for more than 20 years) Shigeyoshi Murao were arrested on obscenity charges for selling Howl and the magazine Miscellaneous Man. The North Beach community was very supportive of the bookstore at the time, as Ferlinghetti explains: “At the Howl trial we had enormous popular community support. Everyone seemed to be on our side, with the Little Man.”


Ferlinghetti was acquitted and the case established a legal precedent: work deemed “obscene” by elements of the status quo was protected by the First Amendment so long as it had some redeeming social value. It would be only a matter of years before books once banned in the U.S., like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would also find their way onto American bookstore shelves. It was monumental, and with the support of the local community and many literary figures and intellectuals, City Lights and Ferlinghetti weathered the storm, undoubtedly one of the most important censorship trials of the last century.


While the Howl trial in some ways overshadows the rest of City Lights’ history, it does not necessarily define it. In the years after Howl, City Lights has continued publishing many culturally significant works, expanded to the point it is at today – with three floors of books (and, as of 2000, City Lights attained ownership of its building, a very fortunate position to be in as rents in the North Beach neighborhood have continued to escalate), achieved historical landmark status and established the City Lights Foundation.


City Lights, Post-Howl


For City Lights and Ferlinghetti, the Howl trial was the tumultuous beginning. In 1971, Nancy Peters, formerly a librarian at the Library of Congress, joined City Lights as an editor. In the early 1980s, in the midst of an organizational financial crisis, it was Peters who helped the company back on its feet. In 1984 she became co-owner and executive director of the bookstore, a role that she stepped down from in 2007, though she remains on the City Lights Board of Directors and is president of the City Lights Foundation. Peters’ empty shoes were filled by Elaine Katzenberger, who is the current executive director and publisher of City Lights, guiding it into the future. In her tenure with the company, Katzenberger had the keen sense to take new technologies and the world of social media seriously, steering the company, in many ways, into the 21st century.



There have been many others over the years who have helped make City Lights what it is today, and they are certainly deserving of credit. Some of the pivotal figures in the company’s history are bookstore buyer, Paul Yamazaki, who has been with City Lights for more than 40 years, store manager Andy Bellows and events director Peter Maravelis. Both have been on staff for more than 20 years.

While City Lights has expanded over its 60 years and while it is a destination for tourists and a beloved bookstore among locals, it is still very much a small operation. According to Stacey Lewis, who started as a staff member in the bookstore 18 years ago and later developed the job of public relations and marketing director, there are currently only five full-time employees in publishing, and 15 full-time bookstore employees, and the publishing company publishes roughly 12-15 books per year. There are, however, more than 200 titles on the City Lights backlist.   


Gentrification has certainly changed the neighborhood’s face since the early days, something that Ferlinghetti has lamented in interviews, and it is something that has already, or likely will, as Lewis says, “skew [the neighborhood demographics] white and . . . wealthy.” Although Lewis has not witnessed many neighborhood changes since she started with City Lights, she has seen many alterations in the way the bookstore and publishing company does business, mostly driven by changing technologies. “When I started at City Lights,” says Lewis, “I actually shared a computer with another staff member, which seems crazy now. . . . Now, of course, I’m on the computer all day.”


Ten years ago City Lights launched the first version of its website, now in its second phase, with a third in the works. More recently, City Lights started its own blog –launched about one year ago, due, in part, to public demand – and it has a Twitter account and Facebook page with more than 17,000 fans from all over the world. The social media feeds were initially updated by Lewis and by a bookstore staff member, but as the influence of social media has ballooned City Lights found it justifiable to bring on a new publicity and marketing associate about one year ago, whose duties include the management of the organization’s social media pages.



Just as City Lights has advanced with the times by joining the social media world, so too it has adapted, cautiously, to changes in the way people read. According to Lewis, all of the new books published are available as e-book editions on platforms like Amazon and Kobo, though City Lights does not currently sell e-books in the bookstore or on its website. “But it’s not to say we wouldn’t,” Lewis adds.


The third and most recent part of the organization is the City Lights Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to publishing works relevant to the city’s culture, with a professed goal of: “advancing deep literacy, which is not only the ability to read and write but fluency in the knowledge and skills that enable us to consciously shape our lives and the life of our community.” Foundation projects have included the publication of the San Francisco Poet Laureate Series and a work co-published with the Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood organization. In addition to publishing, Lewis adds, “In terms of funding or collaborating, we’ve collaborated with a local group called Youth Speaks . . . this incredible organization that brings young people into the spoken word poetry world. . . . I think we’ll probably see more activity from the foundation in the next year. We’re hoping to plan a big event this year to coincide with the 60th Anniversary.”


Asked about her fondest memories over the years, Lewis said she is most thankful for getting to know Lawrence Ferlinghetti and having had the opportunity to see him on a daily basis. She also reminisced about the time she met Allen Ginsberg. He was on a bill with Beck and other popular music artists of the 1990s for a radio show Christmas program: “[W]e got some free tickets and because I was the youngest person here, of course I wanted them, and they gave them to me. Nobody was interested in going to this thing. And so I remember meeting [Allen Ginsberg] and thanking him for the tickets and then I said, Oh, I’m really excited to see Beck. . . . And then Allen said to Lawrence, Do you know who Beck is? And Lawrence didn’t know who he was and [Allen] started singing that song “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” And I just thought that was hilarious.”


Celebrating the City Lights Legacy


This year City Lights will be celebrating its 60th Anniversary with special events throughout the year both in the bookstore and in the community. On Sunday, June 23, from 10 AM to Midnight there will be an open house birthday party at the store, and events will continue throughout the summer months. These events include poetry and literary readings, musical entertainment, games and other activities. The City Lights blog will also be posting fun stories, memories and old photos.


There are many reasons that City Lights remains a pilgrimage for writers, poets and intellectuals, and that it is such a celebrated cultural institution today. Part of it is that it is not just an ordinary bookstore, but a publishing company as well, that has given voice to many writers, including Ginsberg, Corso, Hirschman, Charles Bukowski and Sam Shepard, and leftist theorists and political writers such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Howard Zinn and Ward Churchill. It expands the cultural landscape by publishing writers who are often marginalized in the mainstream culture.


Part of its allure also lies with the biographies of its two founders, especially Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose work, A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the best-selling works of poetry, having sold more than one million copies since 1958. Even today, though he has focused more on painting in recent years, he continues to write poetry. His latest work, Time of Useful Consciousness was published in 2012.

As a bookseller, City Lights changed the way bookstores do business – what they sell and both when and how they operate. But, though significant, if Ferlinghetti and Martin didn’t do it first, it is likely that someone else would have started the first all-paperback bookstore. As a publisher, City Lights changed the American literary culture, challenging the status quo and standing by its decision to publish Ginsberg’s Howl, which led, of course, to the publication of other indispensable literary works.


More than anything else, though, City Lights represents American ideals that are rapidly deteriorating. We have on one basic level, the evermore elusive promise of the American Dream – two young men from Italian immigrant backgrounds who made it as small business owners. But City Lights also represents the promise of freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And, like Chaplin’s Tramp, it represents a hopeful defiance, a willingness to sail forward, even as the strong winds of cultural backlash blow against it.


As Ferlinghetti’s latest collection of poetry attests, times are rough, but it is not yet time to abandon hope; there is still the opportunity, albeit a shrinking one, to make a difference. And though the cultural landscape changes and the literary landscape struggles to adjust to new technologies and the presence of behemoths, like Amazon, that dominate the field, it is most certain that City Lights, in its 60 years, has already made a sizeable difference in the world, and will continue to do so, at least as long as people continue to read.  After 60 years, there is, undoubtedly, very much to celebrate.  


Author Bio:

Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Caroline Culver, Vox Theory, KGenna,  More Solomon, russavia (Wikipedia Commons).

not popular
Caroline Culver
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider