A small ode to City Lights Books in San Francisco
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, artist, and also the founder of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, recently died at 101. For me, he was San Francisca quiddity – creative, marvelously beatnik (I am told this word is becoming taboo, but hark, I still love it and use it in my own way, thank you very much) and part of a movement that could just save America from itself.
I remember the first time I went to City Lights – I was a small boy and my habit of always finding the oldest, or most independent bookstore in whichever place I would be in. Mother said this habit started young, and, guess what, I still do it when I travel — no matter the place. Sometimes it’s a bookstore with pages and pages in languages I don’t fathom — but to me that didn’t matter, I wanted the feel of the books tickling my fingers, the smell of their makings sweating all over me. Books taught me everything I know, about the world and about myself.
City Lights then became a happy routine. Over the next 30 years whenever I would be in San Francisco — a few times a year — I would pop in and fill my arms with too many books to carry, and certainly too many for my carry-on luggage to handle. I say that now with a book collection that would make Fran Lebovitz raise an eyebrow of approval — say 10,000 books perhaps? My now husband sees me disappear into a bookstore, and he automatically starts to imagine extending our house with a wing just for my books. One day I will literally be the old man in a book…
I met Ferlinghetti many times, I guess he would wander the aisles of his shop with his mind glowing like a far-away planet bringing knowledge to mere mortals. My sentiment is that he democratized books, it was the first all-paperback bookstore in the US and this was the early ‘50s, if you can believe that. He was highly educated and incredibly intelligent, but the store has that sense that reading is just normal, it’s part of a proclivity, a soulful and crucial disposition that people can develop themselves. The store reminded me that reading was what helped me through difficult childhood moments, bad relationships I wanted out of, endless travel nights by myself across the globe.
It fed the thing that I value more than anything in the universe, curiosity. I have never left home without a book — sometimes to wait at the dentist for my boring cleaning, or when I lived in big cities, public transportation hours, or just to sit on a park bench somewhere holding a coffee in one hand and in the other… a whole universe expanding.
I didn’t know Ferlinghetti the way I wish I did. I was, like him, a traveler, a “resolute progressive” and deep seeker who felt inspired by fellow readers and quite simply by books. I found my kin with people who see the world in literature and words. He saved the world one book at a time, because reading is fundamental.
City Lights Booksellers and Publishers is located at 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA