San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore just celebrated its 60th birthday last month. Founded in 1953, City Lights began as the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore with an all-access inclusionary vision. What once served as a space for Beat literature forerunners like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs to freely express their radical ideas, City Lights continues to function as “a literary meeting place,” as its masthead still proclaims. The establishment at the corner of Broadway and Columbus is well tread by tourists, who come in to take pictures and to check off their list. The place evokes evokes an air of scholarly erudition as well as an anarchist freedom. Interesting signs delivering imperatives such as “Read A Book Now” and “Sit Down and Read” flank the store. Their selection reflects the bookstore’s taste for high-brow literature, which is divided into two sections: European and non-European. The non-European fiction sections circles around the main floor of the store against the wall. Once I overheard a conversation between the clerk and a customer, presumably a tourist, who inquired about a hit supermarket mass paperback. The clerk gave her this condemning look as if saying why you are reading this crap and politely directed her to anther store.
Although City Lights remains at its original location in the heart of North Beach, the bookstore’s initial modest-sized storefront has expanded to now occupy three floors of the entire building. It carries a mix of paperback books and hardcovers from both major and independent publishers, including City Lights’ own publishing house, which is two years younger than its bookstore counterpart. From the pictures posted around the store, in terms of the ethos, the aesthetics and the spirit of the place, City Lights remains pretty much untouched. It’s like a cultural oasis that sits there witnessing the vicissitude of the neighborhood, which is where Chinatown borders Little Italy. The heart of City Lights truly gives it a rich cultural relevance.