“Welcome to City Lights. A literary meeting place since 1953.” So reads the hand-painted sign hung high on the wall in one of the many book-filled rooms in City Lights Bookstore, the famed San Francisco institution. I recently made a pilgrimage of sorts to this literary hub, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin in 1953. The bookstore was the country’s first all-paperback bookstore, as well as a prominent independent publisher of pioneering and progressive literature, a tradition they still maintain today. City Lights gained its reputation with its willingness to publish and sell literature many considered inflammatory, most notably with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. The store gained national attention when Ferlinghetti was charged with offering an obscene book for sale, but the judge determined that Howl had enough social value that it had First Amendment protection.
Ever since I did a research project about Allen Ginsberg for my high school English class I’ve wanted to visit San Francisco and more specifically City Lights Bookstore. I finally got my chance this past February. I have fantastic friends who live in Napa, which is close enough to San Francisco to justify the visit. Of course I wanted to spend time with them (and the wine) but I also knew this was my shot to make the pilgrimage. So my girlfriend at the time, Eileen, and I flew out to the Bay Area and the first full day we had my old pal, Dave, drove us all into the city and I was ecstatic.
We did the classic San Francisco stuff, like Fisherman’s Wharf and watched some sea lions wrestle, but that was just the appetizer. After that we reloaded the parking meter and walked to that hallowed ground that is the corner of Broadway and Columbus, passing a restaurant called Naked Lunch and stopping briefly in another bookstore/museum called The Beat Museum. We were on the right track. Then we turned the corner and there it was. I never thought I would be so excited to see a bookstore, but such are the joys of a writer. I must thank Dave and Eileen for accompanying me and putting up with my childlike joy, she even said I was “like a kid in a candy store.” And they seemed to enjoy it as well, or at least pretended to, but either way their efforts deserve recognition.
Inside, there were almost too many books to handle, one of those bookstores lined floor to ceiling with books, almost as if the walls were made of literature. With three floors full of a wide range of topics and genres, there is something for anyone and everyone. City Lights has a special charm to it, with creaky floors and crooked, narrow staircases, suggestive of the city’s streets on which it lies. Literary quotes, old photographs and posters of past events hang on the walls, an ever-present reminder of the celebrated history and people who made this place what it is. They still publish innovative literature and continue to hold poetry readings because while times may change there will always be a need for provocative and status quo-challenging literature.
We spent about a half-hour perusing the shelves, and probably would have spent more but we needed to get out of there before we got too far into the rabbit hole. Before leaving though, I made sure to find the infamous Howl and Other Poems and bought a copy for myself. It would have been a disservice to the world of literature to not do that.
The next stop on our literary adventure was Vesuvio Café, right across an alley from City Lights. But that alley is not just any alley, it’s Jack Kerouac Alley, and it has beautiful murals and quotes from the renowned author and others. It’s a nice little stroll down the alley and a good way to clear the head after being surrounded by so many books inside the store and to pay respects to one of this country’s premier authors. But perhaps the truest way to pay respects to Kerouac is to have some beers, so we got some beers.
Vesuvio Café holds literary significance too, as many Beat Generation poets and authors spent many hours in the bar, Kerouac among them. According to the bar’s website, Kerouac spent “a long night” here in 1960 when he was supposed to meet with Henry Miller, but instead just continued drinking. And after sitting in that bar with a pitcher of beer in front of us it is easy to see why he made that choice. With art and eccentricities hanging and filling just about every inch of wall and ceiling space, there was always something new to look at. And more so, the two-floored bar creates a warm atmosphere with its many windows and natural sunlight during the day and strings of soft Christmas lights during the night. It gives off a vibe that encourages sitting, talking and drinking for many hours, something Kerouac must have been all too familiar with, and something we felt ourselves. Our discussion that afternoon was one of those that went from story to story and included hopes, frustrations and everything in between. When the server asked if we wanted another pitcher, we had mixed feelings. While we could have stayed there for hours without noticing how long we’d been there, unfortunately our parking meter was running out, which probably was a blessing looking back on it now.
We paid the tab and before leaving I made sure to snap a picture of the view from our table, which was in front of a wide window looking across Jack Kerouac Alley to City Lights Bookstore. And in that moment I felt as if my pilgrimage was complete, and we clinked glasses with the ghost of Jack Kerouac and downed the last of our beer. I will be back.
Visit the American Writers Museum between May 16 and October 27, 2017 to see the Kerouac scroll. Don’t miss this iconic Beat generation artifact, on which Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road!