BACKGROUND: CITY LIGHTS BOOKSTORE
“Let the adoring hordes enter!” proclaims Scott Davis, turning the lock on the front door of the San Francisco bookstore where he’s worked for 33 years. While that sounds like hyperbole for a Wednesday morning, a respectable wave gushes into the tiny triangular room. Regulars pour down the basement stairs to claim their favorite roosts. Locals surge over the threshold to the right, plucking premeditated titles from the shelves. Newcomers eddy around the triangle, trying to take it all in before drifting under the hand-painted archway “Abandon All Despair Ye Who Enter Here,” as though unsure if this twist on Dante is an exhortation to hope or the entrance to the Inferno. “Ferlinghetti painted that sign,” one of them whispers to her companion in French. “This is where Ginsberg and Kerouac used to hang out,” murmurs another pair, pausing to feel the creak of each stair underfoot.
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin founded City Lights Bookstore in this same triangular room in 1953 with $500 apiece and the conviction that a wider-read public would lead to a stronger democracy. Ferlinghetti ventured into publishing in 1955 with his Pocket Poets Series, intending to bypass leather-bound academia and bring dissident poets to a new audience in the back pockets of blue jeans.
In 1957, two undercover officers arrested manager Shigeyoshi “Shig” Murao in this room for selling them Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, book number four in the Pocket Poets Series. An arrest warrant was issued against Ferlinghetti for publishing the seminal Beat poem, charging that Howl was obscene. He turned himself in to face the charges in court. The ACLU defended Ferlinghetti in a landmark decision that rallied First Amendment advocates and launched City Lights into the national media spotlight.
City Lights’ commitment to publishing dissident literary and political works from around the world continues today. Upstairs, a wedge-shaped office juts over Columbus Ave. like the bow of a ship about to plunge head-on into the Financial District. Taxi horns reverberate up through the open windows. A bus stops with a screech-sigh in time with the syncopated jazz trumpeting from the room’s little stereo. Paul Yamazaki bobs along with the rhythm, adding a flourish of keystrokes between pauses to contemplate his monitor with chin in hand.
“I came straight out of jail into City Lights,” chuckles Yamazaki. “I was very politically active in the late '60s. Because of that political activity, I was incarcerated and sentenced to six-month sentences. To get out early, I needed somebody to say that they would employ me. … Sight unseen, that’s what they did. I think it gives a sense of City Lights’ adventurous spirit.”
That was 1970. He’s now the longest serving staff member, head book buyer, and part of a triumvirate—along with manager Andy Bellows and executive director Elaine Katzenberger —that manages the bookstore. (Now 94, Ferlinghetti devotes most of his time to painting and writing. He painted City Lights’ 60th anniversary signs, and is completing a new book of poems to be published in 2014.)
Yamazaki learned his craft under the skeptical eye of Shig Murao, “the literary pope of North Beach.” He credits another influence, co-owner Nancy Peters, with shepherding the store out of financial difficulties in the early ‘80s and into a sustainable business that remains true to Ferlinghetti’s principles—principles like closing the store in protest during the first day of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“I’m thinking a lot these days (I’ll be 65 in April…) about the things I got from Lawrence, Nancy, and Shig—how to instill that intellectual curiosity, the spirit, the dedicated reading,” Yamazaki says. “We’re celebrating our 60th year, and it’s all our hope—Nancy, Lawrence, myself, Elaine, and Andy—that when none of us are around, when we’re celebrating our hundredth anniversary, that there will be a whole new generation of City Lights staff that will be just as dedicated.”