::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
In Search of City Lights

A Literary Quest to Visit the World-Famous San Francisco Book Store

I am a lost soul.

But I know that I’m not alone. We’re all lost in one way or another. Some of us are lost in the hedonism of youth – blind to everything except the next party, the next pick-up, and the next fun-filled weekend. Others are lost in family obligations – mortgages, diapers, tuition, taxes, and car payments. Yet others are lost in the meaningless pursuit of career and money – selling software or hardware, flying to conventions, attending meetings, and focused on providing solutions to make business faster, easier, and more productive.

Lost in the complications of modernity. But I am really lost – in San Francisco no less. I have taken a wrong turn down one of the many crooked (and rather steep) side streets. It is late in the afternoon and the sky is a searing blue and there is a chill in the air. I paused and consider my options.

Unlike all the other lost souls – I know the way out. I am on a quest. I am in search for a place that holds all the answers. A mystical place with all the collected wisdom of the ages. A place where the dead speak.

I am looking for a book store. A book store called City Lights.

There’s only one thing for me to do now.


The restaurant is called Imperial Palace. It’s an unfortunate name as it is neither imperial nor a palace. But I suppose calling it Dingy Storefront wouldn’t attract enough tourists hungry for Dim Sum. But there are two large tables filled with Chinese-Americans and I think this is a damn good sign. If the Chinatown locals enjoy the food then how terrible can it be?

There is a white couple at the table next to me. As I study the menu, I overhear the man (who has an oval head and short, prickled hair like the bristles of a toothbrush) say to the woman (his daughter?):

“The Catholics cut a deal with Hitler and they’ve been rationalizing it away ever since.”

The rather careless waitress spills my green tea and doesn’t seem very concerned about it. I mop it up with my napkin after she departs. Overhead a sugary Chinese pop song plays on the hidden speakers. It is the kind of music that would cause inmates to riot and depressed teenagers to drown themselves in their family bathtubs.

But my instincts about the food were dead on. It’s hot and delicious. The shrimp dumplings are tasty and the barbequed pork melts on my tongue.

I follow the directions given to me by the host. Evening has settled in and the chill has become a frigid cold. I walk, hands buried deep in my pockets, pass the shops selling t-shirts, Buddha figurines, and other trinkets.

Soon I’m at North Beach. The neighborhood instantly becomes seedier, trendier, and hipper than Chinatown. A startling thought comes to me: I may not be cool enough to be walking here. Luckily, I stumble upon City Lights rather quickly.

City Lights Bookstore was founded in 1953 by the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (and Peter D. Martin). The store (named after the Charlie Chaplain movie) became a hang-out for the Beats. City Lights became world-famous after it was sued for obscenity for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” now considered a classic beat poem. The independent book store is now a San Francisco landmark.

This being San Francisco, City Lights has a bum lying across the entrance. He appears to be sleeping, but he could be dead (or even Jack Kerouac). One never knows. I experience a rush as I enter the legendary bookseller. The interior reeks of intellect, free thinking, and pressed paper. I’m light headed.

The interior is crowded with wooden book shelves – overflowing with tomes. The first floor is filled with novels, best-sellers, and magazines. I follow the squeaky wooden steps down to the basement. It is a wonderful place with signs describing the categories of books: “Stolen Continents,” “Muckraking,” “Anarchism,” “Class War,” and “People’s History.”


I buy lots of books. I am lost no more.

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*wistful sigh* Oh that sounds lovely. Sometimes the best restaurants---and book stores---are hidden behind the most unlikely facades.

I miss dim sum. Time to drag out the cookbooks.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Thanks Heather. Isn't in true? In this mass consumer society we live in the best places can be those mom & pop, independent places. You just need to give them a chance.

Blogger Bybee said...
I've been to Larry McMurtry's bookstore in Archer City, Texas. Now I need to visit City Lights...I didn't know it was named after the Chaplin movie.

Blogger GFS3 said...
I didn't even know Larry McMurtry had a bookstore. Does it have a cowboy theme?

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