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City Lights Bookstore

May 7, 2010

One of the places I definitely wanted to visit while in San Francisco was City Lights Bookstore.

The website describes the bookstore as “a literary meeting place… a landmark general bookstore, internationally known for its expert selection of books and for its commitment to free intellectual inquiry.”

Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin, City Lights gained national attention by publishing  Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956, which was deemed obscene.  It’s a pretty interesting story: When Ferlinghetti heard Howl in 1955, he sent a telegram to Alan Ginsberg that began, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” (I thought that was a pretty awesome line.) Ferlinghetti wanted to publish the book of poems but, knowing the book may spark controversy due to its explicit content, he had it printed in England.  After the book arrived at City Lights in San Francisco, police arrested one of the bookstore employees and charged publisher Ferlinghetti with obscenity. Ferlighetti faced a trial and Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem had not been written with lewd intent, which set the precedent that any book with “the slightest redeeming social importance” is protected by the First Amendment. It is said that Horn’s decision paved the way for the publication of books such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Media attention drew record numbers of people to Ginsberg’s book of poems – in 1958, there were 20,000 copies in print and today there are more than a million.

Another interesting fact about City Lights is that in 2001 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared City Lights an official historic landmark,  the first time a business, rather than a building, was given this title.  The Board noted that City Lights “plays a seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation.”  The bookstore was acknowledged as “a landmark that attracts thousands of book lovers from all over the world because of its strong ambiance of alternative culture and arts,” and it noted that  City Lights Publishers has had a “significant contribution to major developments in post-World War II literature.”

I walked around the bookstore, which is actually a good size while still feeling really homey, for some time.  There are three floors, plenty of books and lots of nooks to sit down and relax with your selections.  There is even an entire section dedicated to beatnik works, where I picked up a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

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