This morning, Friday April 10, I got a head’s up from a friend and customer that the iconic City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco might be closing for good as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having just written about the closing of the Madison Avenue Bookshop this is not a good trend! However, rumors of my death may be premature to quote a famous author. On Thursday April 9, the current owner of City Lights sent out a GOFundMe campaign looking for $300,000 to keep afloat and its 20 employees on board. A day later they had raised over $375,000.
City Lights Bookstore and publishing business was founded in 1953 by two friends, college professor Peter D. Martin and the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The name was in homage to the Charlie Chaplin film. It wasn’t long before Ferlinghetti bought out his partner who then moved to NYC to set up another bookstore. City Lights became a cultural institution for San Francisco’s bohemians and literate. It was the first bookstore in America to exclusively sell paperbacks. They published many of the Beat’s works of poetry.
Who was this Ferlinghetti? Hmmm, Thoughts of Italy, a recent muse comes to mind. Lawrence
Ferlinghetti has and is still living an incredible life. As I write this, he is 102 years old. In WWII, he was a commander of several submarine chasers and he witnessed firsthand the horrific ruins of Nagasaki, and this was the origin of his lifelong antiwar stance. Post war he got his Masters in English Literature from Columbia University and his PhD from the Sorbonne, in Paris. Then on to San Francisco. In 1955, he launched City Lights Publishers with the aim to create “an international, dissident ferment”. He succeeded! In 1956, he had published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems and copies were seized by authorities in 1956 and Ferlinghetti was arrested and charged with selling obscene material. He defended Howl in court with assistance from the ACLU and others and he was acquitted using a First amendment defence. This case established the precedent that paved the way for the publication of such hitherto banned books as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. This case drew national attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation writers, many of whom he later published.
Who were these Beats? A motley collection of amoral, seemingly always under the influence of something illegal, travelers and partiers who left an indelible mark on American literature. They included men and women such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Diane di Prima and Ken Kesey.
When Ferlinghetti was arrested for Howl he had just returned from his cabin up on Big Sur. In 1962, Jack Kerouac, who perhaps wrote the most famous piece of Beat literature with On The Road, published Big Sur. It recounts the events of three brief sojourns to Ferlinghetti’s cabin. The story is all about real life shenanigans, but Kerouac was a master of using pseudonyms. So there is a character key identifying 16 real people with their fictional identities. Jack Kerouac was Jack Duluoz; Lawrence Ferlinghetti was Lorenzo Monsanto and Allen Ginsberg was Irwin Garden. Raven & Gryphon Fine Books has a beautiful copy of this for sale!
In 1998, Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate, and he served for two years. In 2003, he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters. The National Book Foundation honored him with the inaugural Literarian Award in 2005. In 2007, he was named Commandeur, French Order of Arts and Letters. In 2008, he was awarded the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. This award is handed out by the National Italian American Foundation to honor the author who has made the greatest contribution to the writing of Italian American Poetry.
Just maybe we have not seen the last waltz from this incredible person and his City Lights!