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City Lights Bookstore Turns 60

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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.

Extra: City Lights Books

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The end of the holidays and the ring-in of New Year mean the massive exodus of tourists. The month of January is a good time to visit City Lights Bookstore even on weekends. The bookstore is free from tourists who come to bag the attraction and check it off their list. This is my go-to place for high-brow literature and classical titles. The shop now carries a wide range of both paper and hardback titles. Reflecting the free-speech interests of its founders, it caters to outside-the-mainstream voices, with books on progressive politics and social issues, works from small presses and an entire room devoted to poetry. Although the staff members are extremely knowledgeable, they also have a reputation for being a bit prickly with those they deem less informed. While you shouldn’t let their snobby attitude stop you from shopping here, you may want to think twice about asking where to find the latest Danielle Steel novel (they don’t carry chick lit, not even Tom Perrotta). City Lights separate European literature/authors so it might take some time to get used to their organization and find things around the store. On this particular visit I was hoping to find readings for my upcoming trip to Asia: Light Years by James Salter, The Château by William Maxwell, and a few eclectic titles that might catch my attention.

I enjoy the convenience of airport bbookstore but I can never count on what they offer. On this count City Lights deserves kudos for several things. Firstly because of their careful and always interesting selection. Second, because of their knowledgeable staff. Their fiction section is one of the best I’ve seen in a while (at least for new books). City Lights carries only the latest hardbacks, which is fine for me since I prefer the lighter, more portable paperback editions. Magazine rack is very good. Basement sections too. It seems there’s something to note in every corner of the bookstore, even if its a forbidden bookcase, little papers with staff recommendations, signed editions, etc. This is not a commercial bookstore full of best-seller mass paperbacks. Its a one of a kind bookstore with personality. The most commercial aspect of this place is the visitors who strike a pose in front of every shelf indefatigably.

City Lights

Wooden rocking chair at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. This chair, in the poetry room upstairs, is where I usually sit and read when I pay a visit. Students from a spring 2011 anthropology course at Berkeley digitally documented the cultural heritage of City Lights Bookstore to show the cultural and spatial relations between City Lights and Vesuvio Café. Click here to see the entire set of pictures.

Reconciliation with City Lights

Chiropractor appointment brought me to the proximity of Chinatown. The landmark of the Beat Movement, City Lights Bookstore, is just right around the corner. I haven’t been there for years because of an absurd incident that made me boycott it. Some girl up at the front desk asked no one but me to check my bag. Did I look like a book thief? That must be at least 10 years ago. Mindful of that ire but decided that it’s time to bury the grudges, I walked in and was greeted by the smell of book ink.

City Lights is a destination. Soliciting is always welcome as readers and tourists alike find themselves browsing through the naturally well-lit, art decoresque floor full of books. The local independent bookstore organizes its fiction titles in a unique manner that I greatly appreciate: the main fiction and literature section lines the walls on the main floor and snakes around to meet the free-standing shelves that house European fiction. A smaller section is devoted to 18th- and 19th century fiction. New hardbacks can be found on a separate shelf that greets the customers walking into the store. Some customers frown upon this confusion. I just love this distinction.

A staircase at the back of the store takes you to the poetry room in the mezzanine. Although I am not a poetry person, I welcome the spaciousness and quietude of this room. They even put a table and few chairs by the window, giving the room a feeling of a living room. City Lights is truly a bookstore that devotes to the cause of reading. A sign that reads “Have a seat and read a book” is visible as soon as you walk into the store. The basement, which gives the impression of a winery’s vault, houses all the non-fiction titles. You can easily while away a few hours here browsing the shelves, reading placards full of staff recommendation, and just appreciating the history of the Beat Movement in the form of framed posters around the store. To show my reconciling spirit, I made two purchases: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell and Room by Emma Donoghue.

City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Ave
San Francisco