North Beach in the nineteen-fifties was a neighborhood in transition. Following World War II, Italians began to leave the traditional Italian enclave for other parts of San Francisco, such as the Marina and the Excelsior. Real estate in the declining North Beach neighborhood was cheap compared to what it would become. Artists, poets, anarchists, and bohemian types began to populate the neighborhood.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Yonkers-born son of an Italian immigrant from Brescia, was one of those artistic types, but with a wit and intelligence that set him apart. He had earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master’s from Columbia University, and a Doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris. He co-founded, asked by Peter Martin, City Lights Bookstore in 1953 in the former location of Libreria A. Cavalli and Vitalini Fotografia Italiana. City Lights started in the little pointy corner of the building on the alley, 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway, above a flower shop. Soon thereafter, he began to publish books himself, first one of his own works, then the works of other poets.
In 1956 Ferlinghetti attended a reading at the Six Gallery, where poet Allen Ginsberg was presenting his poem Howl. The next day, Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a note quoting a line from a letter that Ralph Waldo Emerson had once written to Walt Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems—and was soon arrested and charged with obscenity.
The nationally-followed trial focused a spotlight on San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. The lengthy trial was interrupted on June 24, 1957, when Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Jr. wrote the majority opinion for Roth vs. United States holding that to be considered obscene—and therefore not protected by the First Amendment—something must be, “…utterly without redeeming social importance.” Based on this new legal standard, on October 3, 1957, trial judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that the poem Howl did, in fact, contain redeeming social importance, and therefore was not obscene. Ferlinghetti was acquitted.
The trial not only brought attention to Ferlinghetti and City Lights Bookstore, but spawned an entire generation of what Herb Caen referred to as the “beatniks.” Men like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were among the most recognizable of the writers who developed a reputation as bohemian hedonists who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. Ferlinghetti soon became known as the “Father of the Beat Generation.”
Sixty years after the founding of City Lights Bookstore, it is still going strong. This past Sunday, June 23, City Lights hosted an open-house birthday party, kicking-off a schedule of special anniversary events that will take place all year long. The event was attended by hundreds of friends and supporters, honored to meet founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti in person, who was visibly moved by the special occasion.
The Italian-American poet, painter, a liberal activist just turned 94 a couple of months ago, but he is still active within the North Beach community, as art galleries are continuously displaying his collection of paintings and poems, which have been translated in nine languages. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti tells the story to everyone, “From the moment we opened the door the place was packed. We stayed open until after midnight; people didn’t want to leave!”
In perfect “Beat” style, the birthday event featured flash readings, a silent auction, archival footage, talks by staff members and special offers to all attendees. The series of “City Lights At 60” anniversary events will take place in the bookstore and throughout the city, along with curated events such as “Sundays in Jack Kerouac Alley,” hosted by some of the editors, writers, artists and friends of City Lights.
The first one will be “The Howl Legacy: The Continuing Battle for Free Expression” (Sunday, July 14), partnering with the Contemporary Jewish Museum (who is hosting a photo exhibit of Ginsberg) for an event about the continued struggle against forces of conservatism and censorship, focusing on Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s successful defense of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl And Other Poems.
The national interest generated by that trial provided notoriety and recognition to an independent bookstore-publisher established just few years before. Today there are more than a million copies of Howl around the world, including an experimental animation movie written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (2010), starring James Franco as Ginsberg.
After Ferlinghetti’s decision to publish Howl, said Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights Publisher & Executive Director, “…the history of City Lights became forever entwined with the legacy of the Beat generation, with its rebellion and aspirations for liberation. The bookstore became a lodestone, as more and more people began to gravitate to it. The publishing house continued to bring out innovative and controversial work, and Ferlinghetti became a de facto ambassador of poetic political engagement. San Francisco became known as a city that attracted and welcomed countercultural experimentation and alternative visions, and City Lights Booksellers & Publishers became a civic institution, linked with the idea of a bohemian, progressive, fantastically beautiful city.”
City Lights is truly one of the few great independent bookstores in the United States, a place where book lovers from across the country and around the world come to browse, read, and just immerse themsleves in the ambiance of alternative culture’s only “Literary Landmark.”
Since Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with his own “Pictures of the Gone World” (1955), the bookstore has published well over two hundred titles, with a dozen new titles being published each year. The press is known and respected for its commitment to innovative, liberal and progressive ideas, always pursuing free expression.
With this bookstore-publisher combination, “…it is as if,” says Ferlinghetti, “the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern.”
(Historical introduction by Nickolas Marinelli)