Publishing at City Lights
After the opening of the store, it did not take long for Ferlinghetti, a poet and artist, to make City Lights both a bookseller and publisher in 1955. Similar to their published work today, Ferlinghetti didn’t hesitate to publish pieces that were not considered mainstream at the time. Shortly after the establishment of the publishing division, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956.
The union of a bookseller and publishing division helps both sets of staff members as they learn from one another. “As booksellers, it gives us a much greater appreciation of what it takes to publish a book well. For the publishing staff, they walk through the store when they go to their offices and they get to see the best of what is being published by a whole variety of publishers,” Paul Yamazaki states.
In 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao, bookstore manager, were arrested for publishing and selling “obscene” material at City Lights. After a trial that garnered national publicity, the judge ruled in favor of Ferlinghetti and Murao. “The trial demonstrated that you can publish sexually explicit material and it has literary merit,” Yamazaki said, “Howl has become one of the landmark poems of the 20th century.”
Since the publication of Howl, City Lights continues to offer their customers books that provide a unique telling of the human experience. City Lights builds upon Nancy Peters’, co-owner and former editor of City Lights, goals for harboring deep literacy through carefully choosing their publications. “What Nancy meant by deep literacy was that literature has this kind of value beyond being able to go about our daily lives and that deep literacy enriches everyone it touches,” Yamazaki stated. Recently, City Lights Foundation Books has published books featuring prison writing that capture the details of individual struggles concerning wrongful convictions to life in an isolated community in an effort to reinforce the importance of being knowledgeable about many different facets of life.
Stay up-to-date on what publications City Lights has released or projects that are still in the works:
Indie Groundbreaking Bookseller
Since 1953, City Lights of San Francisco, CA provides a platform for all types of artists and writers to let their voices be heard with their collection of international titles. When City Lights opened, it became the first store in the United States to sell only paperbacks, and in 2001 the bookstore was named an official historic landmark. In 1955, publisher was added to City Lights’ responsibilities (read about this in the sidebar). From the start, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of City Lights, combined his love of literature and art to get the San Francisco community and bookstore visitors to think about pressing social issues that a reader may ponder when sifting through the pages of a book.
“The store became an immediate gathering spot for younger writers and artists in the early 50’s,” said Paul Yamazaki, head book buyer at City Lights and employee for over 40 years. Ferlinghetti’s friends—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and other Beat authors—had a great impact on the co-founder and the history of City Lights. The street behind City Lights that renamed “Jack Kerouac Alley” and the continued literary presence of Ginsberg’s “Howl” convey how City Lights’ appreciation for the past helps them to garner a better future.
“[Ferlinghetti] really wanted a bookstore that all sorts of readers would feel comfortable in. It was fueled out of his own curiosity and experiences,” Yamazaki told me. “The store shouldn’t be responding to popular taste but helping to shape taste and reflect the values of writers.”
From the start, City Lights has stood out as a store that tries to get visitors thinking about social justice and literary excellence. They continue to hang striking banners from the storefront that feature statements meant to lead to productive conversations between people passing the store. Even the bookstore’s staff sets the tone: fourteen individuals who all have artistic careers or are advocates in the literary or wider community. “We stand out as a beacon. We don’t feel that we have to represent every point of view because a lot of the more mainstream views are widely represented in all sorts of venues,” Yamazaki affirmed.
The City Lights Foundation aims to do just that. With the publication of various literature touching on tough topics that grip our nation to creative projects that enrich both the larger community and the individuals, City Lights has partnered with Youth Speaks, CounterPULSE, the San Francisco Euro-Poetry Festival and other groups of local artists and writers. City Lights’ collaborations aim to spread critical thought and discussion as well as independent thought. An example of City Lights’ commitment to their local and international community is the Zapatista Mural that was painted on the side of the store facing Jack Kerouac Alley. Many local artists collaborated on recreating this mural to show support for the indigenous people of Taniperla, a village invaded and destroyed by the Mexican army, as they struggle to attain social justice.
As City Lights continues to wander off the beaten track, Peter Maravelis, events coordinator for over twenty years, continues to surprise visitors with exciting events in the bookstore and around the vibrant community of San Francisco. Yamazaki reminisces about his favorite events held by "City Lights: the Subterranean Series." For this series, Maravelis would seek out underground spaces around San Francisco and the surrounding area that were not widely known to the public. When the event date got closer, Maravelis would urge community members to come to City Lights to pick up one of the forty or so envelopes that would give the time, speaker, and location of the event. With Maravelis’ unique approach to planning events, community members and tourists visiting the San Francisco area were able to discover new writers and uncover hidden nooks around the city through these mysterious gatherings. Those that can’t visit City Lights can go to the podcast series, “Live From City Lights,” to hear recordings to various events and interviews that will make you feel as if you are in the welcoming walls of 261 Columbus Avenue.
City Lights isn’t slowing down anytime soon; their last two years have seen record setting sales. “I think people are responding to the fact that we so carefully select the books that we take. People come into City Lights knowing that the books on our shelves have been selected by all fourteen of us,” Yamazaki proudly stated.
When asked what they want their visitors to feel when they leave City Lights Yamazaki answered, “We want them to feel that they had this experience that reading isn’t just for pleasure but can open universes to you. I know that has been my experience when working here. It makes us think about what we are reading and the world that we live in in a more expansive way.”
If you’re not sure which book to pick up next, check out Paul Yamazaki’s recommendations: Roberto Bolanõ’s The Savage Detectives and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel. Yamazaki refers to I Hotel as “one of the best American novels published in the last 10 years. I think to read both The Savage Detectives and I Hotel in parallel would make for a very exciting reading project.”
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Nicolette Amstutz is a writer for Independent Publisher. She is currently studying English and Communications at the University of Michigan. Please contact her with any comments, questions, or criticisms at namstutz (at) umich.edu.