June 24, 2013

City Lights celebrates 60 years


Poet and activist Jack Hirschman (right) clasps the hands of a friend in front of a new Ferlinghetti sign on display at City Lights.

In the early 1950s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a former Navy officer who had become a pacifist and anarchist after witnessing the bombing of Nagasaki, had recently moved to San Francisco to be a painter. Newly married, he was relocating from Paris where he had used his G.I. benefits to study at the Sorbonne.

In San Francisco in 1953, he met Peter Martin in North Beach, and they went into business together selling paperbacks. Martin had a store already, and had named it City Lights, which was the also the title of a Charlie Chaplin film. When Ferlinghetti took over the store after Martin moved back to New York City, Ferlinghetti decided to follow the European model of a combined bookstore and publishing house, and City Lights remains at its original location on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway in San Francisco to this day.

He began publishing his own poems—beginning with Pictures of the Gone World—and the poetry of friends in the Poet Pocket Series, which came to include Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl and Other Poems, Gregory Corso‘s Gasoline, and  Frank O’Hara‘s Lunch Poems. Ferlinghetti’s decision to publish Howl and his subsequent victory in the landmark case against censorship has been part of the City Lights’ mission of activism, rebellion, and liberation ever since.

Over the decades, the City Lights list grew to include books by  Howard Zinn, Charles Bukowski, Jean Genet, Nicanor Parra, William Carlos Williams, and translations by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jacques Prevert, and many others. Today, City Lights has well over two hundred titles in print, with 15 new titles being published each year.

City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco celebrated 60 years yesterday with an open house featuring live jazz music and readings from local authors and poets. They also showed film footage of the early years of City Lights, with highlights from the history of this meeting place for progressive literature and politics for the past six decades.

Executive Director Elaine Katzenberger says that thankfully, City Lights’ legacy will live on:

“I would like to raise my own din now and joyfully proclaim on the 60th Anniversary of the founding of City Lights: HELL YES, WE’RE STILL HERE, AND WE ARE HERE TO STAY!… City Lights was founded in 1953, the brainchild of a poet and pacifist and an anarchist. The goal was to create a literary meeting place, where those who might be looking for an alternative to the consumerism and conformism of the time could find inspiration and a place to encounter others who were seeking it, too… It seems we have come full circle in our mission…The goal was never to turn a profit, publishing and selling books in order to line some fatcat’s pockets, rather, the point was always to awaken and inspire, to sound the alarm against the deepening consumerist slumber and the violence of capitalism run amok. Books offer keys to visions and revelations, and a bookstore offers a place to encounter a community of others who might share them. That is why we’re still here, because there is a real and potent value in that.”

Echoing Ferlinghetti on this occasion: “May the Golden Age of City Lights continue!”



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.