Soppy Writer Nostalgia and City Lights Books

City Lights BeatNostalgia is like salt. Use too much and it spoils the meal. But remembering has its place, especially when those memories continue to influence our lives, or an entire generation.

I’m talking about City Lights Books in San Francisco. I’m remembering the final days of the Beat Generation. I’m thinking about some fantastic word artists, poets and writers who influenced more than a generation.

Ferlinghettin at City Lights in 2007Perhaps you’ve heard about those days. Recognize the names Allen Ginsberg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Has the term “Beat Generation” crossed your path? Ever read Howl? If you get to San Francisco, just ask any cab driver. In fact, ask anyone on the street and you’ll probably get a finger-point in the right direction. What happened back then changed the way we write, how we think, the direction of our art.

In 1953, still in the early years of the Beat Generation, Ferlinghetti and a friend founded City Lights Books. Like most things Beat, it was an experiment in artistic freedom, a way to express the movement in a three-dimensional way. At the time, it was a major shot in the dark that turned out to be an epic success. No one could have foreseen its impact on a generation of poets and writers. It was, and remains, a labor of love.

Allen GinsbergI can’t remember precisely when I first sat in on a poetry reading at City Lights. It was in the early 1960s. At the time, poets were street people, they had faces we all recognized, they were familiar and fascinating. They would read and write, we would meet at a local Italian coffee shop and talk.

But the Beat Generation was dying, transforming itself into the hippie counterculture movement to come. As I recall, everything was changing, including how we wrote about the world. These artists were the vanguard. But, at the time, they were seen as rebellious miscreants by much of the larger society. We had a different perspective. What we could sense was the inescapable rush of fresh art, and its home base was City Lights.

Everyone wanted to be a poet back then. Me, too. I just didn’t have the talent. But the allure of the movement, the intense creativity that it spawned, was irresistible. Those were heady times. Art was exploding into unexpected forms, experimentation was everywhere. Poets and writers were pushing limits, inventing original genres. It was impossible to stand apart from the energy, to not be sucked up into the tsunami of talent and artistry. It was a high time, in every way.

City Lights BookstoreMostly, it was all about change. The poets and writers of those times were dissatisfied with the blandness, boredom and hypocrisy of the 1950s. Songwriters were creating hot counter-visions at a furious pace. Writers were breaking all the rules. It was this crunchy re-imaging of the world that caught my attention and kept it. We all felt the itch to move ahead, make some kind of change, be legitimate. We were searching for our own voices and City Lights was at the heart of this new heartbeat. It was a place of intensity and passion, always.

City Lights Books was a cauldron of transformation, a focal point for creative energy and emerging talent. It’s hard to imagine getting excited about hanging around a bookstore. But that’s what happened. Although it was a bookstore on the outside, it was our temple, our secret place. Within its walls, it was a storehouse of unexpected beginnings, experimentation and evolution. It was facile, comfortable, avant-garde in every way.

OK, perhaps that’s a bit too much nostalgia. There was a dark side. Let’s take a small step backward.

Everyone drank too much. It was considered essential fuel for the creative soul. Doing weed was, at first, considered to be a monumental act of defiance against an insensitive society. There was lots of new stuff to try. But the Beat Generation quickly became an unwilling springboard to more dangerous drug experimentation. We began to lean on the crutch, to use it too much. Some of us lost our creative souls and had to start the journey all over again.

The scene outside the storefront could get ugly, sometimes very brutal. Anger ran too deep for many of us. Change became challenge, challenge became defiance, defiance became violence. None of this was good for us, the City, or the Country. I suppose it was the inevitable warping evolution of transformation. But it was sometimes outrageous and grotesque. There was the dark side. There’s always that ying-yang thing at work. We could have looked the other way.

City Lights InsideStill, back at City Lights, the art went on, uninterpreted. The bookstore became a haven for the poet and writer, a place of solidarity where the word still reigned over politics, even when the two clashed. It was an island, always. A place where art was given birth and always nurtured. It stood fast even when the streets were riotous and uncertain. There was always City Lights. The place thrived, became a center of social consciousness, a publishing house, a patron of the written word, everything that an embryonic idea could ever hope to achieve.

City Lights continues, even today. It’s an amazing exception to the flood of failed bookstores. It still publishes, still sells books, still draws the attention of those who want to follow the written word. City Lights is one amazing place, and it’s unforgettable. All the changes, all the challenges and it still rocks on, doing what it was meant to do back in the early 1950s. The basement of City Lights is still that safe and powerful sanctuary. It’s not nostalgia alone. It’s legacy.

Going to San Francisco?


16 thoughts on “Soppy Writer Nostalgia and City Lights Books

  1. You really painted a picture of an era I have only read about. After reading your piece, I feel like I’ve at least captured a living snapshot of that time. Beautifully written. Makes me sad and a little envious I will probably never experience a movement like that in my lifetime. Thanks for sharing yours.

  2. Hey Michael, from one geezer to another…well, I wasn’t quite of age yet when City Lights opened, but my folks were U of Berkeley-ites from 1947-1949, then they moved a bit south near the Big Sur area. They were avid City Lights visitors off and on for 15 years and introduced us kids to the light and darkness of the place in the mid-60s. I treasured the stories and book readings there and was thrilled to continue a little bit of that tradition at the “younger sister” Book Shop Santa Cruz from the mid-70s to the late 90s (until we moved to Italy). Bookshop SC is still going strong, still attracts readings from all sorts of writers and artists (Gloria Steinem was one of the more memorable readings), and though it didn’t/doesn’t have the History-making lore of City Lights, it does prove how sacred some book stores are (Borders opened right across the street at one point and it failed after five years–the good folks of Santa Cruz supported their five or six indies rather than set foot inside of Borders). Good ol’ days? You betcha. No guilt. Loved your post. – Nina.

  3. Wow, I wished I would have known about City Lights when I lived in SF. I could see myself hanging there. But that was before my writing days. I do have to laugh when you said everyone wanted to be a poet. It was so true. I never really understood why, but you hit the nail on the head when you said it was about breaking rules. We were all trying to break the mold that our parents or society was making for us. Good Post!

    • Thanks for your comment. Yep, it was a wild time, for sure. I suppose it won’t happen again but it’s sure fun to remember from time to time. City Lights is one of the most remarkable places I’ve known. And, it’s still hanging in there. Amazing.

  4. After reading this, I’m not sure what I’m more nostalgic for: the book store, the cultural/artistic movement that spawned it, or the spirit of the City that allowed it all to happen.

    Sadly, I’ve only been able to experience City Lights as a portal to a generation past. You can feel the history as you step inside or peer at it from across the street at Tosca Cafe. And despite the change that comes with time, it still captures the ethos of the City and that era. The creative, counter-culture spirit lives on, too; I can remember buying ‘Steal This Book’ and other “banned” books there not too long ago.

    Thanks for the bit of nostalgia, dude!

  5. I remember standing in the doorway watching Hell’s Angels sitting on their bikes a couple of doors down, someone coming in and saying, “Where’s Ferlinghetti?” It was ’68, I was on leave in San Francisco. I had been too young for beats and too old for hippies. My head was reeling. I still haven’t resolved all that stuff. Thanks for the post!

    • That makes complete sense since City Lights was right across the street from Broadway. In your time, Carol Doda’s show would have been nearly on the corner, so guess where the biker boys were headed? Fun times. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Pingback: Beat Generation Rollover of 1965 | Crows Dream

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