Ode to the Soul-Center of San Francisco | GeoEx
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Ode to the Soul-Center of San Francisco

By Pico Iyer | July 15, 2014

To get to one of the spiritual centers of San Francisco—a perfect microcosm, in fact, of the city of evergreen revolutions—you can just turn left after the high-rising office buildings downtown, walk past Francis Ford Coppola’s eccentric seven-storey American Zoetrope mock-pagoda, hauntingly bathed in green shades after dark, and stop just past the spot where Columbus Avenue meets Jack Kerouac Alley. But a more appropriate way of getting to the official historical landmark is down Grant Avenue, at the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, past a long line of slightly kitschy tourist shops displaying quotes from Lao Tse and Jimi Hendrix and posting eco-conscious green Hello Kittys in their windows.

Many of the items on sale amidst the Chinese banks and signs for the “Gold Mountain Monastery” are Japanese kimono (and in Japantown, they’re selling Korean food); quite a few of the Chinese-looking figures you see are emerging from a restaurant called Saigon. All of which reminds you that part of what has made the San Francisco Bay Area so innovative is that, for more than 150 years now, it’s been America’s center of the Orient. By 1854 there was already a Chinese-language newspaper here (the Chinese had come in large numbers to work in the gold fields nearby), and by the 1870s the nation’s only Japantown was a few blocks away. As fast as New York and Chicago were drawing on the energies and talents of Europe, San Francisco was doing the same with East Asia. And now that we’re entering the Asian Century, the city that’s always been the spiritual home of the future tense seems the last word in mixing Californian forward-thinking with Asian serenity and pragmatism.

Come out onto busy Broadway, a raffish drag with Italian caffes on one side and tatty, once state-of-the-art topless parlors on the other—true to San Francisco logic, this area, called North Beach, is not close to any beach at all—and you will find, commanding a whole (though tiny, and irregular) city block, the place that has at once embodied and transformed the very notion of that endangered species, the “independent bookshop.” And in fact the very mix of California and Asia that makes for laid-back sedition. When I walked into City Lights not long ago, I would have been surprised if the woman behind the cash register didn’t sport a shaven head, a leopard-skin pillbox hat (in tribute to Bob Dylan?) and two separate pairs of glasses climbing up her forehead.

If San Francisco’s great tradition is the overturning of tradition, City Lights Books is one of its founding modern monuments, a literally triangular storefront that never begins to look square. The first volumes that greeted me on my recent visit were by André Breton and Antonin Artaud, celebrated mischief-makers from more than half a century ago, and every book displayed in the window was at once highly serious, and not to be found in any other shop window I could imagine. Very quickly you see that City Lights is a little like that ideal, book-loving friend—imagine James Wood filtered through the eclectic, all-American, hip omnivorousness of David Foster Wallace—who has impeccable taste, but knows that the real classics are the books you’ve never heard of.

Yes, the shop’s contents are divided into sections, but they aren’t the ones you’d expect to find in any Barnes & Noble: one is titled Anarchy, another Muckraking. One is denominated Stolen Continents. An entire large bookshelf is devoted to Banned Books (and, impishly, contains The Great Gatsby and Madame Bovary). And one set of shelves, reaching from floor to ceiling, contains books put out by the bookshop’s own imprint. In an age when publishing is said to be dying, City Lights is busy bringing out short stories by Ry Cooder; fiction by the undying hero of small presses, Charles Bukowski; and works by such graying revolutionaries as Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky.

This hunger for revolt is especially impressive in a place that could, very easily, rest on its laurels. It was at City Lights, after all, that Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Kenneth Rexroth all found ways of making their voices heard (not least, in all three cases, by bringing the wisdom and thinking of the Far East into the heart of young America). There’s a “Beat Museum” now across the street from the bookshop, complete with the 1949 Hudson that featured in the recent film of On the Road, driven into the store by the film’s main actor. But City Lights is the real Beat Museum, since it at once embodies the spirit that turned America on its head in the 1950s and invigoratingly carries it into a new generation. At the Beat Museum, you have to pay $8 to enter an inner sanctum of manuscripts and artifacts; at City Lights, you can breathe the air of revolution for free.

Not long ago, such bastions of independent spiritedness and uncertain profits could be found everywhere, from Hatchard’s on London’s Piccadilly to Shakespeare and Company in Paris, across from Notre Dame. But in recent times, though those two survive, even some of the hoariest epicenters of good taste and writerly sympathies, such as the Gotham Book Mart in New York and The Village Voice in Paris, have fallen victim to the irresistible pull of e-books and online retailers; in truth, even mega-stores have not often been able to withstand such forces. The small miracle of City Lights, the first bookshop in America to sell nothing but paperbacks, is that it seems to survive—even to thrive—without stocking Fifty Shades of Grey or Dan Brown; its whole second floor is given over to that most unsellable form of literature, poetry, and to get to it you have to walk through an entire room devoted to fiction, much of it difficult and European, and then a room given over to works from Asia and Latin America.

There are many ways in which you could define the Bay Area: through its ubiquitous high-tech start-ups, or its cathedrals to California cooking (Chez Panisse, for starters); through its abundance of natural beauty and its sushi bars (one, not far from City Lights, advertises raw fish “Like Mom Used to Make”). Irreverence, independent-mindedness and a hunger for far-off cultures have defined it ever since people began streaming into the area in 1849 in search of new fortunes from gold, and a settlement of 812 souls became, within two years, a city of almost 25,000, many from China and Korea and Australia, clustered around more than 1000 gambling houses.

Nowadays, the independent bookstore might be an emblem of this. Just off Valencia Street, some blocks away, is a bookshop that offers an hour of Zen meditation before it opens on Saturdays; just across the bay is constantly exploding Book Passage, a mini-empire that runs trips to Italy and writing classes and has almost an entire building devoted just to travel. New bookshops are appearing as quickly around the Bay Area as they’re closing everywhere else and a city of micro-climates and neighborhoods cherishing their own characteristics likes to define itself through its local bookshops.

But City Lights is the grand old daddy of eternal youth. Its founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is still writing poems even as he enters his 96th year (he celebrated his 95th birthday on March 24), having seen a hundred revolutions (the Beats, the hippies, the nearby struggle for gay rights, the environmental movement and now techno-gizmos 1.0 and 2.0) come and go, each changing the world a little. When I wrote him a fan letter in my teens—I used to delight in reading his poems out at Chapel in our ancient classroom, which dated from 1441—he took the time to write back, to tell me that if I wanted to meet poets, I could drop by his shop any time.

Today a large sign in the shop announces, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” One section downstairs, in the dense section devoted to the arts (and sociology and travel), is called “Green Politics.” I happened to be looking for an obscure memoir by a film critic in New York, and when I mentioned it to a passing figure, he disappeared into an office and spent many minutes trying to track it down. As he did, I lost myself in shelves devoted to urban theory and Mexican history and cultural criticism, though I couldn’t for the life of me find the section that is often loudest and largest in many a 21st-century bookshop, “Autobiographies.”

There are certain beloved writers—from Alexander McCall Smith to Jhumpa Lahiri—I’d expect to find in any independent bookshop. But City Lights is not like any bookshop I know. I couldn’t count on finding these kinds of authors there, but I could expect to find books I’d never see outside a university library or a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. After 60 years, it still somehow remains radical, ahead of the curve and fresher—more clearly in love with the word—than any other bookshop I know.

As I walked back onto the street, after hours of immersion in what felt like a teeming, non-digital mind, I looked again at the woman at the cash register, who was unapologetically dismissing customers in search of memoirs. The lipsticked, shaven-headed, fey figure offering snark turned out to be a man. Or at least someone in transition. Shocks, transformations, even workers who take you aback more than once in a single evening are what makes City Lights as great a sight, as well as a call to new thinking, as the constantly shifting metropolis around it. San Francisco can be hard to take in all at once; its epicenter and perfect symbol—City Lights—can be the perfect way to imbibe the San Franciscan spirit in a single evening. At the entrance to the Fiction Room, some wise soul has scribbled, perfectly, “Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here.”    

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