Bookstore Bums II: City Lights Bookstore

On Columbus Ave in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco stands this landmark of literary history. City Lights Booksellers & Publishers has a storied, Beat past and is well-known as a proponent of progressive ideas.

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The bookstore is aesthetically and intellectually inspiring, with hand painted signs reminding us of some simple truths. In terms of books, one should keep in mind that City Lights has a little bit of everything but a lot of everything else. It seems like a place where people go to find something that they haven’t heard of (except regarding the Beats, in which case, everything you’ve heard of is there).

In part one of this series, I mentioned that iconic bookstores are at risk of becoming relics, gawked at for their history alone. Of course City Lights is a tourist destination, and rightly so. In my view, it is therefore, not an ideal place of exploration, contemplation and reflection, which is what I look for in a bookstore. As a literary destination however, and a place of compelling ideas, books and author events, it very much deserves a visit and your patronage.

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Today, the irksome presence of ‘The Beat Museum’ across the street seems commercial and inauthentic, probably fulfilling a demand from nostalgic beatniks and people who feel they’ve missed out on something. As Kerouac once asked, ‘wasn’t there a time when American writers were let alone by personality mongers and publicity monsters?’ (Intro to On the Road).

In contrast, the authenticity of City Lights speaks for itself. It does not need to capitalize on Beat Generation celebrities to garner status and character. Its commitment to political and artistic expression through literature by using it as a foundation for social change and action is enough. Just keep quietly selling loud books in a shining city of hills.

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