This interview is the first in a series of short conversations with booksellers who, through necessity and with creativity and invention, are making a very different kind of space for books in the world. These are booksellers as curators, as collectors, as community organizers, as auteurs even, whose selection is shaped not by algorithms but by multiple, sometimes competing, criteria with the awareness that books are both commodities and culture, that books instigate all kinds of conversations and connections. I hope that these interviews will illuminate something behind the scenes—beyond the usual “printed-page-brick-and-mortar-local-etc. versus digital-e-book-Amazon-etc” debate—to reveal the inner workings of some remarkable bookstores.
—Lisa Pearson, publisher, Siglio
City Lights is a historical landmark, a living testament to the Beat Generation, and a destination for both tourists and the San Francisco literary community. How do these things influence how your curate the selection of books at the store?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti has always thought of City Lights as being part of a long tradition of resistance and dissent, a beacon of possibility and a place of refuge to consider the long horizon of potential futures. He has always felt it was imperative that City Lights be a place of lively stillness, where the browser/reader could peruse the shelves, select several books and read them at one’s own pace. Between these broad banks of resistance and possibility lie City Lights’ curatorial mission to include works that incite a dissenting imagination. This has been established over decades of thought, discussion, and practice among the entire staff of City Lights who, together, participate in the selection of titles that find a place on our shelves. This three-decades-old practice is an important part of City Lights’ continued relevance and long-term sustainability.
How much do the Beat origins of the store suffuse its current spirit? City Lights seems to have an enduring commitment to poetry. How does this manifest?
The “Beats” are an honored part of the City Lights heritage, but they are only one current in a broad stream of the “barbaric yawp.” Toussaint L’Ouverture, Rimbaud, Nedd Ludd, Soujourner Truth, Joe Hill, Charlie Parker, Fannie Lou Hamer and many others speak with that “barbaric yawp” that inspires us and helps shape our curatorial practice.
Tell us more about the relationship between City Lights and San Francisco, past and present. Does City Lights actively nurture that relationship?
Poet Gary Snyder said “City Lights was one of the suddenly, new great resources in my life. I discovered an array of books published by New Directions Press. They were bringing in European Modernism, Guillaume Appollinaire and all kinds of great stuff–Ezra Pound, (William) Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers, D.H. Lawrence, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist theorist. So there was a real strong intellectual connection …”
Fifty-nine years later, I believe City Lights plays a role that is very similar to what Gary Snyder described, as it is still both a resource and a source of inspiration for readers and writers. Shig Murao was Lawrence’s partner at City Lights for over twenty years and the individual who, along with Lawrence, is most responsible for the renown that City Lights enjoys. And the current staff, most notably Elaine Katzenberger, the director of City Lights, and Peter Maravelis, the events coordinator, continue this long tradition of introducing new and forgotten writers to a wider reading public.
Not many bookstores have a section devoted just to Dada and Surrealism, particularly in a prime location across from the front counter. What’s that about?
Dada and Surrealism are part of the broad river of dissent and resistance, and essential “barbaric yawp’. Nancy Peters, the director of City Lights for nearly 30 years and Philip Lamantia, the surrealist poet, created that section in the early 70s and that the staff has continued over many years. Sections like “Commodity Aesthetics” “Stolen Continents”, “Green Politics”, “Muckraking”,” Topographies & Somalogistics” are other examples of sections created and curated by members of City Lights. What we are attempting to do in these sections is to create a dialogue among the books themselves as well as with the potential reader.
5 QUICK QUESTIONS
What’s your favorite book from childhood?
“Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Graham. The Scribner Edition with illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard.
Do you write in your books? What do you use for a bookmark?
Never! I have a drawer full of bookmarks from other bookstores.
What’s the silliest question you’ve been asked at the front desk?
Where is City Lights?
What’s your favorite spot in the store?
Anywhere in the store after 3AM.
What do you do when you’re not reading or working at the bookstore?
This interview was the work of two Siglio interns, Delia Barnas and Jasmine Francis.
About the photos, Paul says: “The photo of the store dates from the early 60s. If I remember correctly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao are in the mezzanine window. Under the awning are Kirby Ferlinghetti, Bob McBride and a person who I cannot identify. The photo of myself was taken by Stacey Lewis, the director of marketing for City Lights Publishing.” City Lights Bookstore is located in San Francisco, CA on 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway (North Beach).