On a clear spring San Francisco evening about 100 people cram every free space on the main floor of City Lights Bookstore and spill out onto Columbus Avenue to hear Homero Aridjis, the Mexican poet-activist, read from his latest collection, Solar Poems, just published by City Lights Publishers. As is typical at City Lights events, the crowd features faces of every age, shape, and color, and as the reading begins, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who cofounded the country's first paperback bookstore as a “literary meeting place,” sits to the side and smiles the wry smile people share when listening to a poet fill the air around them with poignancy or beauty—or both.
Mexico then yields to San Francisco, and Ferlinghetti reads “What Is Poetry,” in which he posits the poet as a “subversive barbarian at the city gates, constantly challenging the status quo.” It's vintage Ferlinghetti, vintage City Lights, the place where literature, progressive politics, and community are championed and PW's Bookseller of the Year.
For its provocative publishing program and for countless “subversive” nights, the city of San Francisco gave City Lights landmark status, for the first time bestowing that honor to an institution and not a building. In its 57-year history City Lights Booksellers & Publishers has established itself as the ultimate anti-institution institution.
Sitting in an oddly shaped office, the by-product of subdividing a triangular building, Ferlinghetti and co-owner Nancy Peters seem pleased with the moniker. “I really tried from the beginning to make it an institution—an American institution as a community center,” says Ferlinghetti, who just turned 91. That community “is the one thing in which we differ from the online world and various computer and iPad books,” he says.
Before opening City Lights with Peter D. Martin (who later moved to New York City), what Ferlinghetti knew best about institutions was getting kicked out of them. “So I thought the only thing to do was to create one's very own institution,” he says. Originally, City Lights occupied one store front in the building it shared with a barber (who employed topless female barbers) and many other not traditional tenants before expanding to fill its current three floors. After it started the Pocket Poets series in 1955, but long before it possessed the publishing program that holds a symbiotic and supportive relationship with the bookstore, its founders had the audacity to etch “City Lights Booksellers & Publishers” above the entrance. Then, in 1957, Ferlinghetti made history by defending his publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl in an obscenity court battle that not only set First Amendment precedents but forever sealed City Light's reputation as champion of the counterculture.
Peters lays out City Light's basic philosophy by pointing to a sign in the poetry room and reads, “Sit Down and Read a Book.” Ferlinghetti gently reminds her that the sign (which he inked, like he does many in the store) actually says, “Have a Seat and Read a Book.” What might be perceived as quibbling over words by two poets actually reveals two divergent yet essential traits found in City Light's business philosophy, its people and the people it attracts: the hubris to command action and thought of all and the humility to invite the individuals to come in, listen, and share what they have to say.
Something Peters and Ferlinghetti, who have both retired from the day-to-day management of the bookstore and publishing company, heartily agree on is a “get 'em while they're young” approach, not only to clientele but to staff. Joining the current management team at one of three landmark watering holes within walking distance of City Lights, PW quickly learns that the entire staff of 20 full- and part-timers took over Tosca's the night before to roast Paul Yamazaki, the head book buyer who celebrated his 40th year at the store. The only tidbit from the night's roasting coming out of Elaine Katzenberger, executive director, and Andy Bellows, bookstore manager, is that someone called Yamazaki the “Jeff Bridges of bookselling.” It fits. Anyone who's been in the book business long enough knows Yamazaki's the guy who knows about the literary bestsellers before anyone else—yet he deflects credit for his talent to smart editors or other booksellers.
Forty years ago the 21-year-old Yamasaki sat in a jail cell after being arrested protesting the war in Vietnam. With a little help from his friends at the bookstore, a judge agreed to give Yamazaki his get-out-of-jail-free card if he took a job at City Lights. Katzenberger was a bartender and artist when she joined the staff 23 years ago and has never looked back. Bellows was one of countless college kids in City Lights' history who plunked himself down in the store's basement and read his way to an education—often staying until closing time, at midnight. That was 22 years ago. Like all the staff, the management team started on the bookstore floor.
Yamazaki quotes Ferlinghetti, who defines City Lights as being part of a “long stream of literature and cultural resistance,” and says that that balance is what keeps everyone who works there engaged. “Lawrence and Nancy are visionaries and generous to allow us to become what we have as book people at City Lights,” he says.
Katzenberger is quick to inject that City Light's mission is not unlike the mission of other independent bookstores, but adds that there is something unique to City Lights' culture. “It's based in politics, and an aesthetic politics,” says Katzenberger. Its founding literary/counterculture principles attract people—even those who end up working there. The City Lights culture allows its people to “really feel as if they have found a bunch of kindred spirits,” Katzenberger continues, “and that is what makes the cohesion, and that's why we all stay so long.” During these times when everyone seems willing to prognosticate about the future of printed books and no one knows what is going to happen, Katzenberger says she feels buoyed by the culture, the history, and the people who work at and congregate at City Lights.
Central to City Lights' mission is to present the voices and ideas that help people develop a critical mind, to question what might be lost as technology or political ideology displaces things before people even realize the consequences, says Katzenberger. “One of the things that makes City Lights—and places like City Lights—is that people come in and they find things they weren't even aware of,” says Yamazaki. “And 'if you like X, then you like Y,' is never going to replace that,” Katzenberger adds.
City Lights' strengths are in literary fiction from large and small houses, literature in translation, and, of course, poetry. The store, notes Yamazaki, is committed to serving as an outlet for alternative voices. To keep the whole business afloat, managing stock, cash flow, and inventory is key, Yamazaki says. Whenever it can, City Lights buys direct from publishers, and its knowledge of what sells best at the store keeps it from overbuying, giving City Lights one of the lowest return rates among independent booksellers. And given its progressive bent, City Lights doesn't try to be a “one-stop shop” for every book in print. In keeping with that philosophy, it limits special orders to books that it would normally stock.
While City Lights uses all the new technologies to market the store, one crucial ingredient to its long-term success has been its location at the intersection of Columbus and Broadway, one of the busiest corners in San Francisco. To maximize that asset, City Lights takes full advantage of its ample window space, displaying books the staff believe are interesting and important, and ensuring that the selection is refreshed every few days. Yamazaki believes the tactic works to entice people to buy a book in the window they may not have known about before, and when they are in the store to pick up another title or two.
Since the '80s, Ferlinghetti has helped secure City Lights' future by putting in place smart business practices and making decisions like buying the building and forming the City Lights Foundation, which entrusts City Lights' legacy as a viable community center. As sad as it is to even think it, nothing or no one can replace Lawrence Ferlinghetti. On a personal level, the staff who make up what has become a family, albeit a radical one, cannot comprehend a City Lights without its venerable founder. Yet they know it will continue without him. “This thing has taken on a life that Lawrence infused it with, and it can't change—none of us would let it change,” says Katzenberger. “It's a pact everyone makes when you start working here.”
The life of an institution never resides in one person—and Ferlinghetti would be the first to admit that. But until the time comes when City Lights finds itself without its founder, Peters says, “Lawrence will do what Lawrence always does, serve as this incredible inspiration and roving ambassador.”
“What I've always done is get everyone else to do all the work,” says Ferlinghetti. Humble words from a man with the hubris to both create and nourish an anti-institution institution.