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« Avoiding Nemesis | Main | Camaro Style, Original and Retro »

October 08, 2009

Digging Ferlinghetti's Old Digs

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Today's guest article is by Michigan-based writer Edward Craig who reports on his recent visit to San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore in the North Beach area which was co-founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti who gained his greatest fame publishing Beat poetry in the 1950s.

Edward's report:

* * * * *

I visited San Francisco recently and made a pilgrimage to City Lights, which is what’s known as a “destination bookstore.” Other examples are Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. and Powell’s in Portland.

These stores are marked by their size. City Lights in three stories tall and most of its square footage, including the staircases, is packed with books. More importantly, though, is the zeitgeist of these establishments.

City Lights reflects the spirit of San Francisco, that being an in-your-face leftism. You can pick up books with titles like “The ABCs of Communism” and “Film in Post-Colonial Africa.”

It made me almost ashamed to be a white male. I wondered how it made the other white males hanging out in the store feel. I might have asked them, but I didn’t want to disturb their leisurely reading. I could have sought the opinion of the one young woman of color at the store, but she was busy running the cash register.

There are chairs set out in City Lights so you can take your time reading the books they offer. Which is good, since most of them are really expensive. There are no discount tables at City Lights like you’ll find at Borders or Barnes & Noble.

I considered buying a two-volume set on the history of Southern succession. It seemed very interesting, getting into topics such as the eccentric character of South Carolina. But they would have cost me more than $50 and I would have had to haul them back to Detroit.

I considered a number of books from the eclectic art section, which includes categories dedicated to graphic novels and graffiti. What stopped me was a growing sense of being ripped off. I kept wondering, “How much less would I pay for this on Amazon?”

But you’re not buying books at City Lights, You’re buying into a heritage. The Beats used to hang out at this store. You pay for a connection to people like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. You pay to support a stance against the establishment, against the corrupt system that keeps us down.

In the end, I walked out with nothing. I guess I’m too cheap to be one of the people.

* * * * *

Thank you, Edward, for bringing us up to date on the post-Beat scene where the market somehow still manages to rule.



posted by Donald at October 8, 2009


You’re buying into a heritage.

Since the lack of discounts is a stark fiscal reality for pretty much any small community business, one needs to decide is:

"Is the presence of a small community business is worth the excess cost to you?"

I'm guessing that for you, the answer is no. Fair enough.

I guess I’m too cheap to be one of the people.

That's not so fair.

It implies that somehow a Leftist specialty bookstore ought to be able to do some fiscal magic and price books at Amazon or B&N prices. Since the publishers consider small bookstores to be invaluable (at least they keep telling the independents), they charge them more than the big chains or Amazon (and then fret when they disappear).

City Lights won't be helping its customers much by lowering its prices and going bankrupt. If it has sufficient community support to stay in business, the odds are the book prices won't have much to do with it. And if it doesn't, nothing will save it.

Posted by: Tom West on October 8, 2009 6:06 PM

There's a pleasure and sense of discovery to browsing an eclectic bookstore that's unmatched by online shopping or big box chain bookstores. Also, the chain bookstores don't discount all their titles, just bestsellers, at least the last time I checked.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 8, 2009 7:09 PM

Tom West is right. City Lights is just another small independent bookshop under pressure from Amazon.

Posted by: lemmy caution on October 8, 2009 8:20 PM

I left San Francisco precisely to get away from this kind of crap. It was apparent even back in the mid-70s where that city was headed. Too bad, because it's a beautiful town.

The beats were really just lowlife fucking bums. Tiresome. The commie shit is beneath contempt. Worship at the altar of genocide. Why doesn't that evil ever die?

Cafe Trieste is up the street. One of the best coffee houses in the country. That's a place worth hanging out.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 9, 2009 6:42 AM

I notice some people bristling at my suggestion that City Lights' stock is overpriced. While economic factors have changed, I believe Ferlinghetti's original goal was to make the place affordable. That's why it was the first paperback-only bookstore.

Posted by: Edward Craig on October 9, 2009 9:02 AM

Ah, that puts it in a different light.

On the other hand, I'm not certain how an independent book store could ever make things more affordable. Book are not fungible, so unless you can afford to offer them at a discount, your only choice is to not stock certain books that your customer might want.

Maybe he thought that the appearance of helping people save money would help build community, which *is* worth something.

(As an after-thought, maybe he thought he could pressure publishers into publishing the paper-back version earlier than they would otherwise. Good luck with that if you aren't Amazon or B&N.)

Posted by: Tom West on October 9, 2009 3:06 PM

I made my pilgrimage to City Lights during a trip to San Francisco a year or so ago.

I was greeted by a cashier who said, "Sir, you can't bring your coffee in here." It was said with a tone of sniveling contempt.

Clearly, City Lights has become more of a tourist attraction than a bookstore. I don't blame the guy for being short with me --- most of their business is probably tourists who have heard that "this is where the Beats started." I can imagine the staff has to deal with a lot of obnoxiousness.

They did have a good selection of avant-garde writing. I didn't buy anything.

Posted by: James on October 10, 2009 12:50 PM


Kerouac woulda gotten into a fistfight with you for calling him a Commie. Say what you want about the Beats, but they weren't the ideological burnouts like the subculture that replaced them.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on October 12, 2009 2:54 AM

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