San Francisco's most iconic bookstore, City Lights Books, is celebrating its 70th anniversary with a slate of special programming that sheds light on the North Beach landmark's pioneering past.
Founded by Peter Martin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 as a triangular one-room store at 261 Columbus Avenue, City Lights has survived and thrived for seven decades. The store continues to play a vital role in SF by stocking an ever-evolving and well-curated collection of books and periodicals, and by acting as a meeting place and cultural hub for the local literary community. Plus, it's just a very charming spot to browse and rub shoulders with some of the coolest readers in the city.
Editions of City Lights' 'Pocket Poets Series' over the years.(Courtesy of Rosie Merlin)
My dad, Bob Levy, was the bookstore bouncer referenced in Gerald Nicosia's "Poem for Gregory Corso's Ashes in the English Cemetery in Rome." Dad sold books and did accounting for City Lights, and that's where he met my mom, who worked as a bank teller across the street, 47 years ago. I would grow up on those creaky stairs, among the store's quite glamorous children’s book collection, and with the old-fashioned cash register (my dad sometimes let me ring up the customers).
City Lights’ storied history includes many noteworthy accomplishments and adventures. In 1955, two years after opening the store, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with the now-famous Pocket PoetsSeries; the press continues to publish a diverse range of poetry, fiction and nonfiction from local and international authors. In 1956, both the publishing house and the shop became widely known following the obscenity trial of Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl.
Autographs for the author from Howl poet Allen Ginsberg...
(Courtesy of Rosie Merlin)
...and City Light's legendary founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The 1970s and '80s brought growth and more space for the store. In 1978, City Lights doubled its footprint by taking over the now-central room which had been occupied by an Italian travel agency. In 1989, Ferlinghetti opened City Lights’ Poetry Room, a must-visit spot that feels like a magical tree house.
The new millennium has been marked so far by both celebration and survival. In 2001, the SF Board of Supervisors named City Lights landmark No. 228, citing its “seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation.” In 2003, the store’s 50th anniversary brought together hundreds of literati at parties on both the West and East Coast. And in 2020, in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, City Lights raised over $500,000 through crowd-funding to keep the store alive.
This fall, learn more about the history and the ongoing place of City Lights in the San Francisco fabric in a series of history talks, poetry readings, and panel discussions. Or, just stop by and buy some books; you never know who you'll meet.
// City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, 261 Columbus Ave. (North Beach); find the schedule of 70th anniversary programming at citylights.com.
A collection of City Lights bookmarks.