Along Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, at the nexus of North Beach and Chinatown, a bronze plaque in front of a jazz/seafood joint called the Condor reads, “Where It All Began. The Birthplace of the World’s First Topless/Bottomless Entertainment.” Down the street, a barker stands in front of another club, the Roaring Twenties, exhorting tourists to “come in for a great show”; around the corner on Broadway, the Beat Museum hawks memorabilia of the past—a Jack Kerouac bobblehead doll, anyone?
Then there is the bookstore, the venerable City Lights, at 261 Columbus, cofounded 54 years ago by the legendary Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It, too, has messages to deliver—signs declaring “Impeach!” and denouncing “Bush and Cheney’s Lies.” But as Ferlinghetti, now 88, sits in the crowded warren that is his office, fittingly located behind the third floor section of City Lights devoted exclusively to poetry, he seems unruffled, with an equanimity served by equal parts bemusement and rage about the ways in which the world has changed since the days when he first published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
“I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by boredom at poetry readings,” intones Ferlinghetti, in mischievous paraphrase of Howl’s famous opening line, adopting his customary contrarian pose. In a 1957 letter to Allen Ginsberg, he wrote, “I am sick of all these con operations,” after Life magazine had taken photos at a mass reading at Kenneth Rexroth’s house. “It has nothing to do with poetry.”
Ferlinghetti has outlived them all—Rexroth, Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Ginsberg—yet he resists, and has always resisted, playing spokesman for the beat generation. In fact, he credits his survival to his rootedness as a bookman, while his comrades cavorted on the high speed highway. “They were out on the road,” he says. “I was home, keeping the store.”
An icon of the West Coast beat scene nonetheless, Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco’s first poet laureate in 1994. In 2000, the NBCC gave him its Lifetime Achievement award. But he seems to gain greater pleasure from ongoing agitations in defense of free speech and free expression. At the moment, Ferlinghetti is involved in controversies surrounding a decision by WBAI not to air a reading of “Howl’ on the 50th anniversary of its original publication for fear of FCC sanctions, and the Bank of America’s yanking of an exhibition of Ferlinghetti’s paintings because of complaints.
“It’s pretty absurd,” he says of the WBAI/FCC flap. “Turn on commercial television and there’s all kinds of shocking imagery that people can see. State-sponsored terrorism and people getting blown up on screen are not considered obscene, but you can’t read Howl?” As for the paintings: “It was supposed to be up for two months and was summarily taken down after two and a half days. It was just some innocent-looking nudes—they weren’t screwing or anything. D.H. Lawrence’s nudes got busted by the London police a hundred years ago. We seem to be going backwards.”
These days, though, Ferlinghetti is looking toward the future, not the past.
“Our list is totally different now than what it used to be,” he says. “Whitey,” Ferlinghetti’s shorthand term for the college-age combination of political and hippie culture, “had his counterculture revolution in the ’60s and enjoyed the benefits of what has happened since then. But the Third World—blacks, Latinos—haven’t won their revolution yet. The most interesting writing today is coming either from Third World writers or women.”
He is pleasantly surprised by the store’s longevity in an age when indie bookstores are being relentlessly pushed out by chains.
“I never really considered City Lights a business, and I certainly never considered myself a businessman,” he laughs. “It’s really a miracle we survived. In 1982, we were practically out of business, but Nancy Peters, the wife of the surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, took over as general manager and turned the whole operation around.”
“One thing that made a big difference was that we had the idea we should do everything possible to make it a community center,” he said. “Right from the beginning, we had a slogan on the masthead: 'A Literary Meeting Place Since 1953.’ ”
“Part of the reason for the store’s success was that Lawrence wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill bookshop owner, but an engaged, political poet who was out there in the world,” adds Elaine Katzenberger, who succeeded Peters as executive director of the bookstore and editorial director of City Lights Publishers. “Before the 'virtual community,’ there was a community attracting really interesting and talented people who’d pass through here. It was a destination that people would come to, not just for the store, but because you’d find other writers here. Lawrence would welcome you and you’d find...”
“Neal Cassady and Ginsberg in the basement, clowning around,” Ferlinghetti interjects, laughing. “At the same time the beats were here, we had a periodical stand, which was unique in those days. Mort Sahl would pick up a paper or magazine and read from it in his act.”
Ferlinghetti and Katzenberger were at pains to credit Peters, who was also City Lights editorial director for 25 years, as well as veteran book buyer Paul Yamazaki and store manager Andy Bellows for keeping the scrappy City Lights spirit alive.
And speaking of virtual communities, the store even has a MySpace site these days, although marketing director Stacey Lewis acknowledges that Ferlinghetti, who she says has a “healthy skepticism” about the Internet, has never visited it.
“We can’t stay mired in history—and never wanted to,” Katzenberger says. “We’re not going to just get by because we’re the 'vaunted City Lights.’ The bohemian bank account isn’t really getting many deposits these days.”
Ferlinghetti continues to relish his store’s unique cultural role, though.
“I’ve never understood why more stores don’t also publish books,” he notes, before being shushed by Katzenberger. “Don’t let it get around,” she says. “It’s a symbiotic benefit for both.”