Thursday, June 19, 2003

Beat bookstore celebrates 50

City Lights educates residents and tourists in San Francisco

By Kim Curtis
The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO - Browsing through sections marked "muckraking," "anarchism" and "stolen continents" may be unnerving to an unsuspecting book buyer, but it's exactly what draws patrons to City Lights Books.

The North Beach institution, made famous in the 1950s as a center for the Beat movement, celebrates a half-century in business this month. And staff and outside experts agree the store, which began in a hallway and the basement and now consumes the entire building, is stronger than ever.

"We've become an international cultural center," says Nancy Peters, who co-owns City Lights with poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. "People come here because they know we have great books, but we also have political discussions and readings."

About 50,000 books are crammed into 2,200-square-feet of retail space. The books are packed tightly onto tall, wooden shelves on wheels. With stacks placed at unusual angles, it's not a store for "roaming the aisles." But there are reading nooks and other spots to sit and relax.

Political posters dominate the walls. Hand-lettered signs are everywhere: "No Shirt. No Shoes. Full Service"; "Stash Your Sell Phone and Be Here Now"; "Have a Seat and Read a Book."

Fiction dominates the main floor. Some best-sellers are stocked - The Hours, Atonement and Life of Pi - but they're not prominently displayed. One huge shelf contains staff recommended reading: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, is there, but so is Mabinogion Tetralogy, by Evangeline Walton, and The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis, by Vassilis Vassilikos - not exactly hot sellers.

A scary, rickety stairway leads to the lower level, swollen with books about history, science, politics and travel. That's where you'd find "stolen continents" books - works about American imperialism. The third floor is dedicated to the Beat writers and poetry.

"We're not that influenced by market forces," said buyer Paul Yamazaki, who started working at City Lights in 1970. "Books aren't product to us. We have a real knowledge and passion for what's on our shelves. That's the key."

Pushing the envelope

Ferlinghetti and sociology teacher Peter D. Martin pitched in $500 each and opened City Lights in 1953 in a former flower shop. It helped launch the Beat movement in 1956 by publishing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," which led to Ferlinghetti's arrest on obscenity charges. He was later acquitted.

The store remained controversial. In 1961, City Lights Publishers released the Journal for the Protection of All Beings, an early ecology magazine. In 1966, the store again was raided, this time for selling Lenore Kandel's purportedly obscene The Love Book.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, City Lights published several pieces protesting the Vietnam War, including Ginsberg's poem, "The Fall of America," which received the National Book Award. And on March 20, when the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Baghdad, City Lights protested by closing its doors.

Martin, who sold his half of the business to Ferlinghetti in 1955, died in 1988.

Ferlinghetti, 84, who keeps a second-floor office at City Lights and still lives in North Beach, stops by nearly everyday.

The legendary Ferlinghetti calls the store "a way of life."

"We survived by creating an intellectual center, a literary meeting place," he has said. "But somehow, we were able to furnish what other bookstores can't."

And that's key to its success.

"They're a great bookstore and everybody loves them and they've stayed true to their philosophy," said Hut Landon of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. "If they weren't good at what they did - I mean that in a book sense and a business sense - they wouldn't be making it in this day and age."

With San Francisco's limited and pricey retail space, neighborhood bookstores have yet to be edged out by superstores.

"(San Franciscans) don't want this to look like Chain Street USA," Landon said. "City Lights bookstore is all about neighborhood and community and if that's important to you, if that quality of life is important to you, you have to support local commerce."

Community support

There's a Barnes & Noble near Fisherman's Wharf and a Borders in Union Square, but neither is real competition for City Lights, which draws tourists and locals alike.

Nationally, independent bookstores sell 16 percent of all books, according to the Book Industry Study Group. In Northern California, they account for about 20 percent of sales.

City Lights prides itself on its eclectic selection. "We have less than 5 percent of the New York Times' best-sellers in our store," Yamazaki said proudly. "Our customers have come to rely on us and our tastes."

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