City Lights Bookstore  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Co-founded in 1953 by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Publishers is a landmark independent bookstore and a small press publisher that specializes in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. It is particularly known for its publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl & Other Poems and the controversy which ensued. It is located in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, California, at 261 Columbus Avenue on the corner of Broadway Street.



City Lights was the inspiration of Peter D. Martin, who relocated from New York to San Francisco in the 1940s to teach sociology. He first used City Lights—in homage to the Chaplin film—in 1952 as the title of a magazine, publishing early work by such key Bay Area writers as Philip Lamantia, Pauline Kael, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Ferlinghetti himself, as “Lawrence Ferling.” A year later, Martin used the name to establish the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S., at the time an audacious idea.

The site was a tiny storefront in the triangular Artigues Building located at 261 Columbus Avenue, near the intersection of Broadway in North Beach. Built on the ruins of a previous building destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake, the building was designed by Oliver Everett in 1907 and named for its owners. City Lights originally shared the building with a number of other shops. It gradually gained more space whenever one of the other shops became vacant, and eventually occupied the entire building. In 2000, City Lights bought the building.

In 1953, as Ferlinghetti was walking past the Artigues Building, he encountered Martin out front hanging up a sign that announced a “Pocket Book Shop.” He introduced himself as a contributor to Martin’s magazine City Lights, and told him he’d always wanted a bookstore. Before long he and Martin agreed to a partnership. Each man invested $500. In 1955, Martin sold his share of the business to Ferlinghetti for $1000, and moved to New York and started New Yorker Bookstore, which specialized in cinema.

Today, City Lights is a general bookstore, specializing in fiction and poetry, cultural studies, world history, and politics. It offers three floors of new-release hardcovers and quality paperbacks from all major publishers, as well as a large selection of titles from smaller, independent publishers. City Lights is a member of the American Booksellers Association.


During 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with his own Pictures of the Gone World, the first number in the Pocket Poets Series. This was followed in quick succession by Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Poems of Humor & Protest by Kenneth Patchen, but it was the impact of fourth volume, Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg that brought national attention to the author and publisher.


Ferlinghetti had heard Ginsberg read Howl in 1955 at the Six Gallery; the next day, he offered to publish it along with other shorter poems. William Carlos Williams—a longtime acquaintance of the New Jersey-born Ginsberg and himself a future Pocket Poet with a 1957 edition of his early modernist classic, Kora in Hell (1920)—was recruited for an introduction, perhaps to lend literary justification to Howl’s sensational depictions of drug use and homosexuality. Prior to publication, Ferlinghetti had asked, and received, assurance from the ACLU that the organization would defend him, should he be prosecuted for obscenity.

Published in November 1956, Howl was not long in generating controversy. In March 1957, local Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee seized a shipment from England of Howl’s second printing on grounds of obscenity, but he was compelled to release the books when federal authorities refused to confirm his charge. But Howl’s troubles were just beginning, for in June of that year, local police raided City Lights Bookstore and arrested store manager Shigeyoshi Murao on the charge of offering an obscene book for sale. Ferlinghetti, then in Big Sur, turned himself in on his return to San Francisco. Both faced a possible $500 fine and a 6-month sentence. (Ginsberg was in Tangiers at the time, and not charged.) The ACLU posted bail, assigned defense counsel Albert Bendich to the case, and secured the pro bono services of famous criminal defense lawyer J.W. Ehrlich.

The municipal court trial, presided over by Judge Clayton W. Horn, ran from August 16 to September 3, 1957. The charges against Murao were dismissed since it couldn’t be proved that he knew what was in the book. Then, during the trial of Ferlinghetti, respected writers and professors testified for the defense. Judge Horn rendered his precedent-setting verdict, declaring that Howl was not obscene and that a book with “the slightest redeeming social importance” guarantees First Amendment protection. Horn’s decision established the precedent that paved the way for the publication of such hitherto banned books as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly's Lover and Henry Miller’s 1934 Tropic of Cancer. The media attention resulting from the trial stimulated national interest, and, by 1958, there were 20,000 copies in print. Today there are over a million. Howl, in a sense, “made” City Lights, providing prestige almost unique for an independent press of its size. Ginsberg continued to publish his major books of poetry with the press for the next 25 years. Even after the publication by Harper & Row of his Collected Poems in 1980, he would continue his warm association with City Lights, which served as his local base of operations, for the rest of his life.

Apart from Ginsberg’s seven collections, a number of the early Pocket Poets volumes brought out by Ferlinghetti have attained the status of classics, including True Minds by Marie Ponsot (1957), Here and Now by Denise Levertov (1958), Gasoline (1958) by Gregory Corso, Selected Poems by Robert Duncan (1959), Lunch Poems (1964) by Frank O'Hara, Selected Poems (1967) by Philip Lamantia, Golden Sardine (1969) by Bob Kaufman, and Revolutionary Letters (1971) by Diane di Prima.

In 1971, Nancy J. Peters joined Ferlinghetti as co-editor and publisher. Over the years, the press has published a wide range of poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, and works in translation. In addition to books by Beat Generation authors, the press publishes literary work by such authors as Charles Bukowski, Georges Bataille, Rikki Ducornet, Paul Bowles, Sam Shepherd, Andrei Voznesensky, Nathaniel Mackey, Alejandro Murguía, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ernesto Cardenal, Guillermo Gómez Peña, Juan Goytisolo, Anne Waldman, André Breton, Kamau Daáood, and Rebecca Brown. Associated from the outset with radical left-wing politics and issues of social justice, City Lights has in recent years augmented its list of political non-fiction, publishing books by Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Howard Zinn, Cindy Sheehan, and Ward Churchill.

Landmark status

In 2001, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made City Lights an official historic landmark, citing the organization for “playing a seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation.” It recognized the bookstore as “a landmark that attracts thousands of book lovers from all over the world because of its strong ambiance of alternative culture and arts,” and it acknowledged City Lights Publishers for its “significant contribution to major developments in post-World War II literature.”

The building itself, with is clerestory windows and small mezzanine balcony, also qualified as a City landmark because of its “distinctive characteristics typical of small commercial buildings constructed following the 1906 earthquake and fire.” The landmark designation mandates the preservation of certain external features of the building and its immediate surroundings.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "City Lights Bookstore" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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