or What I Did on My Christmas Vacation
After Kim sent me TWO separate e-mails with links to websites that said City Lights is one of the best bookstores in the country, I figured she’d never forgive me if I came back from San Francisco without visiting it. Not that it was a chore, by any means–I love going to bookstores–but it was a necessary pleasure.
Famous from its inception because the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was one of the co-founders, City Lights quickly became a meeting place for members of “the Beat” generation and a supporter of books that conservatives wanted to ban. They’ve continued their “fight the power” attitude–there’s a left-of-liberal political message in every well-lit upstairs window. To summarize: Bush is bad, so is war, and freedom of expression is good.
I don’t mean to be overly glib: this is a good place which has supported the right side of literary and political causes for decades. So they’ve earned the right to enjoy their reputation–not to mention the hordes of people who stream into the place and, I assume, actually purchase books before leaving.
It was crowded when we went there in the late afternoon on the Monday between Christmas and New Year’s. Every place in San Francisco was crowded that week, but while I expected to see lines at the Academy of Science, I was more pleasantly surprised to see a lot of people shopping for books. City Lights, at least, seems immune from the scary times that are threatening a lot of other indies.
In atmosphere, City Lights reminded me a lot of Book Soup (for those angelenos who read this–Kim noticed the same thing). Warm, inviting, with lots of nooks and crannies to get lost in. They have a downstairs, an upstairs, a room off of another room, a back room, a front hallway, a back hallway . . . well, you get the idea. No simple box, this place.
I went downstairs, past the display of new hardcovers (but this is the kind of store that puts Gary Indiana’s latest by the cash registers, not Grisham or Clancy), let my kids find their way to the (fairly small) children’s section and amused myself by jotting down the names of the more unusual adult aisles, like ”Muckraking,” “Green Politics,” “Stolen Continents,” “Best of University Presses,” and so on. There was a whole display devoted to Che Guevara and an extensive “Queer Section” (their name, not mine).
Just as at Book Soup, I felt slightly not cool enough for this place. I assumed, for instance, that they would never sell any one of my novels–it’s not their kind of thing (a quick look in the upstairs fiction room proved my guess to be accurate). And my presence there probably doubled their annual numbers of self-described housewives. On the plus side, they let my kids use their bathroom even though it’s not open to the public and when Rob asked them for a restaurant recommendation, they were incredibly nice and helpful. So I guess my feelings of insecurity are simply leftover from watching the cool (druggie?) kids in high school and wishing I could be one of them and knowing I never would be, and not from anything this lovely bookstore set out to do.
Their website is fantastic and saves me from having to go through all the history of the place and how they publish books now, too. There’s a lot of cool information about the Beat generation. (The upstairs room in the bookstore is devoted to poetry and Beat literature, by the way. ) Go to their site and read about how Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s book of poetry back in the ’50′s and got arrested on obscenity charges, leading to a landmark case about First Amendment rights. I can poke fun all I want: anyone who loves books should be grateful for all Ferlinghetti’s done. And for this bookstore.
My only disappointment was that Audrey Hepburn didn’t appear in a pair of black clamdiggers and a black turtleneck to do an improvised dance to some jazz music. If she were alive and likely to start dancing in a bookstore, this is the place she’d do it in.
261 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
T: (415) 362-8193
F: (415) 362- 4921