A young poet reflects on the not-so-little bookstore that could and, for the last half century, has.
By Matthue Roth
I'VE BEEN READING
City Lights books forever.
In high school I didn't even know that City Lights Bookstore was a place. I just thought Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg sat in a basement, cutting and pasting books together. I never knew how people became professional writers. There was only one thing that separated my xeroxed-and-stapled zines from actual published books like A Coney Island of the Mind. My zines were a lonely shout in the dark, one small voice in northeast Philadelphia, where books didn't exactly get read. Instead we had football. Their books were like a whole band.
In my neighborhood there were no independent bookstores. My parents had a few City Lights standards lying in the basement like doggie bags from the '60s, back when regular people read poetry. I devoured them all. They were the only window to a world outside my neighborhood for years, until I started high school and I could travel downtown to find independent bookstores.
Those books felt like transmissions from another planet.
City Lights books weren't like normal books. They were square instead of oblong, more like CDs than books. They were small enough to slip in your pocket. The poems were catchy, and I could read them over and over like song lyrics not like actual books, which I'd read once and discard once I knew the ending. The covers were always intense and flamboyant, except when they were totally monolithic. The only two books without cover illustrations in my parents' house were the Torah and Ginsberg's Howl (a City Lights edition), both white with stubby black letters, as though the title was all you needed to know.
Occasionally the bookstores would display a poetry collection that was new and weird, usually from City Lights, or one of its spiritual children, other San Francisco publishers like Manic D Press and Last Gasp. I'd grab it and run. Before I came to San Francisco, I'd pored through the whole City Lights oeuvre. And I knew the pack of authors drawn here by the literary mecca that City Lights created: Beth Lisick, Michelle Tea, the Sister Spit Poetry Roadshow.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. In high school English, though, they never taught you how to start writing a novel or how to get paid to drink coffee. I knew something burned inside me. I had a bunch of poetry books. I looked at the publisher's address on the books and figured San Francisco was the next logical step.
To writers to freaks and punk rock kids and zine makers and coffee drinkers City Lights Bookstore and San Francisco are interchangeable. We can tell you stories of our first time at City Lights just like we can tell you about our first time having sex. Except when we talk about City Lights, we're not lying.
"Walking into City Lights, I entered a history built by my idols," writes Daphne Gottlieb, who moved to San Francisco in the mid 1990s. She started writing poetry and performing at open mics. Her book Final Girl is being published by Soft Skull later this year. "The day I felt I could finally call myself a writer was about two years ago, when a friend called to tell me that my book was on the recommended shelf at City Lights."
The day I moved to San Francisco, I walked to City Lights from the Tenderloin house where I was staying. I wandered through various neighborhoods on the way. I looked for Jack Kerouac Street, which I still fresh off the boat figured would be a big boulevard. I asked people where Jack Kerouac Street was. Nobody knew what I was talking about.
But I knew to head north, to Broadway, where San Francisco Bay was a jump away. Instead of asking for the street name, I asked for City Lights Bookstore.
People understood that.
My first days in San Francisco, I spent a lot of time there. I still do. I sat in the upstairs poetry room, next to the publishing offices, where I read books at random. I picked authors whose names sounded famous, covers with flashy logos. I sat there for hours, reading in the store because I couldn't afford to buy anything. The staff never said a thing.
They still don't.
It's a place where there's no line between authors and readers. Last week Tim'm West, from the queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective, was late to his own show down the street. He'd been looking for an out-of-print book for years, Marvin White's Last Rights, and he learned that City Lights was the only place that still stocked it.
In fact, the only time I've ever gotten into trouble there was when I brought Tuomo and Elina, my friends from Finland, to the poetry room. I was trying to explain why I loved City Lights. I told them how there are so few bookstores run by writers, and how Ferlinghetti started the store, and how much of a rock star he is. I didn't see Ferlinghetti standing right behind me. That sort of thing doesn't happen in real life.
But City Lights is bigger than real life.
Even when I discovered other independent bookstores in the city Modern Times Bookstore and Dog Eared Books in the Mission, Aardvark Books in the Castro City Lights retained its mystique. Among the old-money Victorians and velvety dance clubs, City Lights is a crumbly antique with wooden stairs and rickety chairs. The magazine rack carries all of the revolutionary propaganda you could ever want. The basement pop-culture aisles are narrow and shadowy. Neighbors hang laundry on the fire escape. I still want to make out in the film-studies section some day.
How many bars depend on a bookstore to supply their crowd? City Lights supplies two: Vesuvio next door, and Spec's across the street. Book parties at City Lights aren't tepid affairs where authors sip the same glass of wine all night. After the first reading I attended for Jill Corral and Lisa Miya-Jervis's book Young Wives' Tales everyone moved over to Vesuvio's second-floor balcony and got trashed. I was still starstruck, and afraid to get buzzed with actual published authors. A few months later my own chapbook Yom Kippur a Go-Go would be selling downstairs. But I didn't know that yet. I was still reveling in the wonder. Sometimes, I think I still am. City Lights is one of those places that never stops startling you.
I went to City Lights on my first date in San Francisco. We were both broke. We wanted someplace fun to go at 11 on a weeknight.
I felt nerdy and sheepish about admitting that until last week, at the 50th-anniversary celebration, when a crowd of ex-hippies and ex-beatniks and teenagers packed the street and flowed over traffic barriers. Local author Daniel Handler, who, as Lemony Snicket, writes the Series of Unfortunate Events books, told the exact same story about his first date with his wife.
This is the magic of City Lights: the moment that you move to the big city and you realize that you weren't the only one thinking about bigger things. Those weird paperbacks that got me through northeast Philly, the ones with cuss words, the ones that my English teacher hated and the other kids never understood now I know there are other people who do understand.
City Lights is just the place where they gather.
Matthue Roth is a poet and performer. He is writing a novel about
a sitcom about an Orthodox Jewish family. He keeps a secret online
journal at www.matthue.com. He
lives in San Francisco and turns 25 this week.