Battle of the Bookshops: City Lights in San Francisco

16th Jul 2010

City Lights Bookstore San Francisco

On a recent holiday to Poland, I decided to have a look inside the National Museum in Krakow. At the time, they were showing an “Americana” exhibit, filled with lots of kitschy paintings and pastoral farm landscapes, and some quirky nightlife shots of the major American cities in the 1950s. But alongside this, they had cleverly constructed full replicas of key American artistic and cultural mainstays, including the iconic diner from Hopper‘s Nighthawks, with a counter you could actually sit at! And nestled next to Nighthawks was another American institution, a recreation of the front façade of my beloved City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

City Lights was founded in 1953 by the utterly brilliant poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin. Sadly, independent bookshops and publishers in America are swiftly dying breeds, but City Lights is one of the true original greats. A landmark of the Beatnik culture, and a thriving hub for those authors at the time, the Beatniks’ anti-establishment attitudes and counter-cultural thinking live on at City Lights, with just the right amount of reverence.

Walking into City Lights became the closest I’ll ever have to a religious experience. In addition to their massive selection from major and speciality publishers, they have self-published well over a hundred titles, including the Pocket Poets Series. This series began with Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World at Number 1, but its most ubiquitous title is surely Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, Number 4 in the series and constantly seen in the hands of backpackers, students, and pilgrims to the grave of Jim Morrison. The obscenity trial of Ferlinghetti for publishing Howl (the poem was ruled not obscene) raised the profile of both store and publishers, leading tour buses to stop in front of the shop in the hope of seeing a “real beatnik”. In addition to literature of the Beat Generation, City Lights has published works from authors such as Bukowski, Shepard, Georges Bataille, Anne Waldman and Andre Breton. Historically linked with left-wing politics and issues of social justice, they have augmented their non-fiction with works by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

Spread over three floors, City Lights offers not only a range of interesting titles, but also staff who have speciality interests and in many cases have contributed to the selection themselves. Meeting a staff member with a common passion could see you sorted for conversation and recommendations from someone with genuine affection for authors and their books. What you won’t find in City Lights are sandwiches, lattes, packaged snacks, wrapping paper, greeting cards, toys, personalised mugs, novelty books or play areas. What you will find are a few comfy seats and a lot of enlightenment.

Through the years City Lights has easily attained landmark status, but few “landmarks” maintain such integrity to their original intentions. No visit to San Francisco could be complete without a pop inside to see what all the fuss is about. And I can’t imagine that it would disappoint.

Want to know what this Battle of the Bookshops is all about? Or maybe you want to tell the world about that independent bookshop with the power to make your heart flutter and ransack your bank balance? See this post for all the info, then email us or let us know in the comments which other bookshops we should feature.

Guest post by the wonderful Sara Teresa

(Image via <<graham>>’s Flickr photostream)


  • Alex Herod says:

    Oh how I would love to go to City Lights! It’s on my MUST GO list for when I finally make it across the pond to America. Bookshops. Bloody great, aren’t they?

  • Sara says:

    yay! Thank you forbookssake for allowing me to feature the lovely City Lights, was great fun…. can’t wait to see the battle heat up!! x

  • Sara says:


    The trailer for Howl, which I just found out about and can hardly stand how excited I am

  • WOW. Consider sitting at the counter of Nighthawks… even it’s a replica! 🙂

    I was in SF in 1993 (yes, that was another century) but can’t for the likes of me remember whether I went to CLB… It looks familiar, so I think I did. I would have, wouldn’t I? Otherwise I’d need to put it on my list of things I stupidly missed out on! 🙁

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment, I would have thought you’d remember it if you’d been there, but like you say, it was a while ago! It’s been featured in several films, though, so that might be why it looks familiar!