SF’s City Lights Bookstore celebrates 50 years in business
June 8, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO — Browsing through sections marked “muckraking,” “anarchism” and “stolen continents” may unnerve the unsuspecting book buyer, but it’s exactly the kind of attitude that has drawn patrons to City Lights Books for decades.
“Stolen continents,” for the uninitiated, captures books about American imperialism.
The store in this city’s North Beach neighborhood, made famous in the 1950s as the epicenter of the Beat movement, celebrates a half-century in business this month. And staff and outside observers agree that the store is stronger than ever.
About 50,000 books are crammed into 2,200-square-feet of retail space. There are nooks and corners and plenty of spots to sit, relax and read.
“We’re not that influenced by market forces,” said buyer Paul Yamazaki, who started working at City Lights in 1970 by packing and shipping books. “Books aren’t product to us. We have a real knowledge and passion for what’s on our shelves. That’s the key.”
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and sociology teacher Peter D. Martin opened City Lights in 1953 in a former flower shop. By 1956, they were helping launch the Beat movement by publishing Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl,” which led to Ferlinghetti’s arrest on obscenity charges. He was later acquitted.
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At 84, Ferlinghetti still keeps a second-floor office at the store and stops by nearly every day. The store is “a way of life,” he says.
“We survived by creating an intellectual center, a literary meeting place,” Ferlinghetti has said. “But somehow, we were able to furnish what other bookstores can’t.”
And that’s key to its success.
“They’re a great bookstore and everybody loves them and they’ve stayed true to their philosophy,” said Hut Landon of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. “If they weren’t good at what they did — I mean that in a book sense and a business sense — they wouldn’t be making it in this day and age.”
Given San Francisco’s limited and pricey retail space, neighborhood bookstores have yet to be edged out by superstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble.
Resident here “don’t want this to look like Chain Street USA,” Landon said. “City Lights bookstore is all about neighborhood and community and if that’s important to you, if that quality of life is important to you, you have to support local commerce.”
The big chains have taken root in two of the city’s tourist destinations — there’s a Barnes & Noble near Fisherman’s Wharf and a Borders in Union Square — but neither is real competition for City Lights, which draws both out-of-towners and locals.
Nationally, independent bookstores sell 16 percent of all books, according to the Book Industry Study Group. In Northern California, they account for about 20 percent of sales.
City Lights prides itself on its eclectic selection. The store’s 14 employees meticulously pore over book catalogs to beef up their shelves.
“We have less than 5 percent of the New York Times’ bestsellers in our store,” Yamazaki said proudly. “Our customers have come to rely on us and our tastes.”
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