Tiny little place. Used to be tinier.
Big honking impact upon the literary world. As big as ever.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s little side business turned 60 years old on Sunday. He had settled in San Francisco during the early 50’s (I don’t know if he passed through town after he visited Nagasaki and returned to the US during Operation Magic Carpet). I suppose (speculating again) that he found the place amicable to his newly radicalized spirit. Note that the signs in the second story window read “Open Door,” “Open Books,” “Open Mind,” “Open Heart,” “Disarm” and “Turn Left.” He hasn’t changed at all.
Not too many people know that City Lights, the first all-paperbook bookstore in America, was originally the idea of one Peter D. Martin. Ferlinghetti became co-owner in 1953 with a $500 investment, and bought out Martin for $1,000 a few years later. In 1955, he started the publishing company whose fourth book, Howl and Other Poems, led to sundry arrests and a huge upset victory in court when Judge Clayton Horn found both Howl and Ferlinghetti not guilty of obscenity.
The 60th celebration featured live music in Jack Kerouac Alley, free broadsides of poems by Ferlinghetti and Diane di Prima, fifty per cent off on City Lights books (I purchased A Coney Island of the Mind and San Francisco Poems–it just felt right), and a rare chance to see the 94-year-old poet, publisher and activist. Here are some pictures of the event. Because the bookstore itself is mostly dim inside, even with those huge front windows, photography is not easy in there, I had to edit everything one way or the other.
If there exists one aspect of Ferlinghetti’s publishing, writing and retail careers that has come in for criticism in San Francisco, it lies in the fact that frankly, he has made a lot of money with his idiosyncratic little business where they don’t seem to mind if you spend hours reading on one of the many stools available. Yes, I have actually heard people complain that Mr. Ferlinghetti has made a decent living or better at poetry. I have heard many ridiculous things in my 31 years in my adopted hometown. This ranks in the Top 10. Instead of griping about how he has profited from other people’s poetry, why can’t they say that he has taken on The Man at His own game and beaten The Man at it? (for those of you too young to recall, “the man” was always written as “The Man” during the Sixties, even as the definition of “The Man” varied with almost every use). City Lights has somehow managed to survive as a tiny independent bookstore in an era when even the mightiest chain bookstores have fallen, at least for the time being, so I say let’s give Mr. Ferlinghetti credit.
Then I see something like this:
…and think that maybe the critics have a point.
And then I think again.
No. They don’t.
Keep on keeping on, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Long may you retail.
Vonn Scott Bair