Published in 1956, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” is City Lights Bookstore’s most famous title. With its frank and vivid descriptions of drug use, “pubic beards” and people “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists,” “Howl” garnered national attention and notoriety for Ginsberg and City Lights. The success of “Howl” and its riotous effect on literary censorship reflects the fundamental anti-authoritarian, free-speech, fuck-the-system philosophy at City Lights’ core.
City Lights is celebrating its 60th birthday this Sunday with a party in Jack Kerouac Alley, where there will be music, flash readings and special in-store discounts. Founded in 1953, City Lights began as the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore with an all-access inclusionary vision. What once served as a space for Beat literature forerunners like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs to freely express their radical ideas, City Lights continues to function as “a literary meeting place” — as its masthead still proclaims.
Although City Lights remains at its original location in the heart of North Beach, the bookstore’s initial modest-sized storefront has expanded to now occupy three floors of the entire building. It carries a mix of paperback books and hardcovers from both major and independent publishers, including City Lights’ own publishing house, which is two years younger than its bookstore counterpart.
City Lights Executive Director Elaine Katzenberger explained the need for the bookstore’s corporate side to balance its “funky independent side,” which has dwindled comparatively since the ’80s. She asserted that “changes in the book industry sort of mean that if you’re going to survive, you have to actually learn how to run a business too. So we’ve all had to learn that.”
Still, Katzenberger assured, “I would say in terms of the ethos and the aesthetics and the spirit of the place — I feel like that remains pretty much untouched.” Katzenberger explained that the core of City Lights adheres largely to founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s principle and vision, which “really had to do with wanting to create a meeting place where people could come and encounter books and magazines and each other in a … populist environment.”
City Lights’ mission is composed, as Katzenberger referred to it, of a “two-sided coin,” with the bookstore and publishing house on either side. Katzenberger said, “The symbiosis of the two projects is part of the genius of why we exist all this time … It really has to do with those ideals about community and open access to ideas and also an open mind about what kind of ideas deserve access.”
While Ginsberg’s “Howl” is a proud symbol for City Lights, Katzenberger explains that there is more to City Lights than its Beat beginnings: “I think sometimes people think that City Lights published the Beats and stopped there, but that’s obviously not true.” The Beats were the counterculture voice of their time, but with each new decade comes a shifting counterculture. In this sense, while Beat poetry is no longer the center of City Lights, contemporary counterculture perspective remains the focal point. As Katzenberger said, “A lot of the sort of protest and resistance movements find ways (into) the books that we publish.” Current publishing endeavors revolve around antiglobalization movements, immigration reform movements and racial issues in America.
The anarchist heart of City Lights, a true literary and political landmark, gives the bookstore its rich history and continuous cultural relevance. The new decade of the beloved independent bookstore marks the persistence of its mission to represent the underrepresented, diversify voices, promote critical cultural thought and provide a crucial alternative to the ideas circulating in mass media.