The Blog

Inside City Lights: An Interview (Part 1)

In our search for independent bookstores that have shaped literary culture as we know it, perhaps none is so influential as that Californian beacon of progressive thinking, City Lights. Founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin in 1953, the San Francisco store and small press has become a cultural landmark, making its mark far beyond the sphere of the literati. Ferlinghetti, a literary icon, is a writer of poetry, translation, fiction, theater, art criticism, film narration, and essays, as well as an integral figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat movement. His poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind is the the most popular book of poetry in the country and his publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems sparked the “landmark First Amendment case [that] established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work with redeeming social importance.” We’re downright thrilled to speak with City Lights’ Book Buyer, Mr. Paul Yamazaki, about his experience as part of this altar to alternative thought and culture.

Atticus Books: Do you ever feel like a celebrity in the book-buying world, being the buyer for such a well-known and iconic store?

Paul Yamazaki: No.

AB: How has the character of San Francisco shaped the character of the store? Do you think City Lights could exist anywhere else?

PY: In my opinion City Lights could not exist anyplace other than 261 Columbus Ave. The cultural, literary and political environment of San Francisco from 1946 to 1953 created the foundation of what was to become City Lights. Poet Philip Lamantia described that period as a “convergence of poets, painters, ex-conscientious objectors and radical anarchists-rebels of all stripes. Kenneth Rexroth was the central figure..” Rexroth along with Madeline Gleason laid the groundwork for what was later to be called the “San Francisco Poetry Renaissance”.

In 1947 Gleason organized the “First Festival of Modern Poetry.” Poets who read during the two-day festival included Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Muriel Rukeyser, William Everson and Jack Spicer. Among the ex-conscientious objectors were poets William Everson and Lewis Hill who would go on to found KPFA, the first listener sponsored radio station in the United States. KPFA became the voice for the poets, painters, ex-conscientious objectors, radical anarchists and left wing radicals of all stripes. Lawrence [Ferlinghetti] and Peter Martin created City Lights to become the bookstore to that community. Through the years, City Lights has maintained these traditions and the staff of City Lights feels this is the key to our continued sustainability.

AB: In the same way, what does the staff of City Lights bring to the personality of the store?

PY: Lawrence has felt that the staff was an essential element of the sustainability of City Lights. There is no better evidence of this than Shigeyoshi Murao, one of the first employees that Lawrence hired. Shig eventually became a partner in City Lights and managed the store for over 20 years. For many of the poets and writers who frequented City Lights from 1953 to 1975 Shig was one of the central and most compelling figures in the San Francisco literary world of the time.

Nancy Peters is another key member of the staff who started working at City Lights as an editor in 1971. Without Nancy’s able navigation City Lights probably would have not been able to clear the shoals of a financial crisis in the early 1980s. Nancy became Lawrence’s business [partner] in 1984 and was the director of City Lights until she retired in 2007.

The staff is at the heart of City Lights’ curatorial practices in book acquisition. For the past 30 years, all members of the staff participate in the decision-making process of what books will be stocked at City Lights. I feel this participation by the staff makes City Lights such an interesting browsing experience for the curious reader.

AB: How do you see City Lights (or how do you think it sees itself) in relation to the rest of the independent bookstore community?

PY: City Lights from its earliest years has been part of a continuum of booksellers. George Whitman credits Lawrence with encouraging him to open his bookstore in Paris, which George named Shakespeare & Company in honor of Sylvia Beach. The 8th Street Bookshop owned by the Wilentz Brothers was the New York City analog of City Lights. In the 24 months after City Lights opened, Roy Kepler opened his bookstore Kepler’s in Menlo Park on the San Francisco Peninsula and Fred and Pat Cody opened Cody’s in Berkeley.

Together these three stores helped shaped independent bookstore practices and the public perception of what an independent store is. My decades as an independent bookseller would not have been possible without the friendship and advice from booksellers. Most of what I know as a bookseller is derived from the conversation that I have had with booksellers from all over the United States.

About Libby O'Neill

Libby O'Neill is Managing Editor of Atticus Review, as well as this journal's deadbeat granddaddy, the independent press Atticus Books.

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