Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Enduring San Francisco

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher, painter, social activist and bookstore owner, has been San Francisco’s de facto poet laureate and literary Pied Piper for seven decades. He turns 100 this month, and the city is making preparations to celebrate him in style. The mayor’s office has proclaimed March 24, his birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. Readings and performances and an open house will take place at City Lights, the venerable bookstore he co-founded in 1953. Parties and happenings and the screening of documentaries are planned at many other locations as well.

The most unlikely celebration will be the release party this month for “Little Boy,” Mr. Ferlinghetti’s slim new autobiographical novel, which is also a love song to his adopted hometown, a place with “endless street movies passing in cars and trams of desire.”

Mr. Ferlinghetti opened City Lights in 1953, and it quickly became a nerve center for writers and readers.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times
Mr. Ferlinghetti opened City Lights in 1953, and it quickly became a nerve center for writers and readers.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

Any reader’s trip to San Francisco should start with a visit to City Lights. On a cool, damp late morning in February, my wife and I walked the mile from the downtown Union Square area to the store, which sits near the border of Chinatown and its raffish North Beach neighborhood, and is within a stone’s throw of more than one faded, gloomy topless joint.


Pound for pound, City Lights is almost certainly the best bookstore in the United States. It’s not as sprawling as the Strand, in Manhattan, or Moe’s Books, in Berkeley. But it’s so dense with serious world literature of every stripe, and so absent trinkets and elaborate bookmarks and candles and other foofaraw, that it’s a Platonic ideal. It can inspire, even in jaded bookstore-goers, something close to religious awe.

Mr. Ferlinghetti opened City Lights in 1953 when he was in his early 30s, with a business partner who soon departed. The store survived an obscenity trial in 1957 after its publishing arm issued Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary “Howl and Other Poems.” The trial made Ginsberg and Mr. Ferlinghetti internationally famous almost overnight.

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City Lights became a nerve center for the Beats and other writers. Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl” while living in an apartment at 1010 Montgomery Street, a few blocks from the bookstore. Jack Kerouac often blew in. In the original scroll of “On the Road,” he wrote: “once again I wanted to get to San Francisco, everybody wants to get to San Francisco and what for? In God’s name and under the stars what for? For joy, for kicks, for something burning in the night.”

Vesuvio Cafe, where Jack Kerouac occasionally hung out, is still going strong.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times
Vesuvio Cafe, where Jack Kerouac occasionally hung out, is still going strong.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

Not everyone loved the Beats, even in wide-open San Francisco. The columnist Herb Caen, nonplused, invented the term “Beatnik” in 1958, which made the Beats sound like something you’d want to flick off, like fleas.

Ginsberg, Kerouac and other writers from that era were Easterners who dropped into San Francisco for a spell. But San Francisco’s mid-20th-century literary reputation extends far beyond the Beats. Richard Brautigan, the author of “Trout Fishing in America,” arrived in 1956 and stayed nearly 20 years. Among the more intensely local writers were the poet Kenneth Rexroth, a father figure to some of the Beats, as well as the poets Gary Snyder, who was born in the city, Michael McClure and Diane di Prima, who moved to San Francisco in 1968 after leaving Timothy Leary’s intentional community in upstate New York. Today, writers like R.O. Kwon, the author of “The Incendiaries,” the poet D.A. Powell, and Dave Eggers make San Francisco their home.

In the 1950s and until recently, with the slow demise of snail mail, City Lights was the post office that kept writers’ mail while they traveled. The store carried early gay and lesbian publications. Its bulletin boards were the unruly alternative press of their time. They were where you’d announce a political rally or seek a ride, a roommate, a job, a scene or a sex partner.

For many years the store was open until 2 a.m. It remains open until midnight seven days a week, a fact that should humble New York’s bookshops, which tuck in much earlier. City Lights was known, back in the day, as the place to go if you wanted to stick a book down your pants and walk out with it. (Security has improved.) Over the years, it has become an institution, so much so that in 2001 it was made an official historic landmark.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of his book shop, circa 2015.CreditStacey Lewis

If City Lights is a San Francisco institution, Mr. Ferlinghetti himself is as much of one. Tall, shy, mischievous, blue-eyed, gray-bearded and balding (he’s looked old since he was young), sometimes seen in Nehru jackets or on tatami mats during the 1960s and 70s, he has loomed over the city’s literary life.

As a poet, he has rarely been a critical favorite. But his flexible and plain-spoken and often lusty work — he has published more than 50 volumes — has found a wide audience. His collection “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1958) has sold more than a million copies, making it one of the best-selling American poetry books ever published.

Mr. Ferlinghetti has become part of San Francisco’s civic furniture, speaking out when something needs to be saved — for example the Gold Dust Lounge, where Janis Joplin and Tony Bennett hung out, and which once upon a time was a burlesque bar owned in part by Bing Crosby. In 2013 the bar moved into the heavily touristed Fisherman’s Wharf area, where its gritty dive-bar ambience makes it a welcome morsel of authenticity.

Mr. Ferlinghetti’s gadfly goal has often been, simply, to keep the city weird. At other moments he has spoken up in moments of crisis. In 1978, after the assassinations of George Moscone, the city’s mayor, and Harvey Milk, the city supervisor who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States, Mr. Ferlinghetti wrote a poem that was published two days later in The San Francisco Examiner. It was titled “An Elegy to Dispel Gloom,” and it began: “Let us not sit upon the ground / and tell sad stories / of the death of sanity.” It ended: “such men as these do rise above / our worst imaginings.”

According to Barry Silesky, in his biography of Mr. Ferlinghetti, the city thanked him personally for the poem, which “helped maintain calm in the city in the face of tragedy.”

Jack Kerouac Alley is packed with murals and plaques inscribed with poetry by Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Steinbeck and others.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times
Jack Kerouac Alley is packed with murals and plaques inscribed with poetry by Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Steinbeck and others.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

A few weeks ago, I reached out to Mr. Ferlinghetti, explaining that I was coming out to the city to write about him and about his San Francisco — that is, about the places that have meant something to him. I hoped to pay him a visit, I said, and to glean some thoughts about my itinerary.

At 99, Mr. Ferlinghetti is largely blind. He was not, I was told, quite up to receiving visitors. But we had two lively telephone conversations. In advance, I’d told both his publisher and his assistant that I planned to ask about his favorite places in the “cool, grey city of love,” as the poet George Sterling called it.

Yet when I rang, Mr. Ferlinghetti barked at me. “This is just the kind of interview I don’t like to do,” he said. “These sort of questions just leave me blank.” He condemned “travel section stuff.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was writing this article for the Travel section. I changed the subject to books and culture. Soon we were getting along like great old friends.

William S. Burroughs, the author of “Naked Lunch,” is the most undervalued Beat-era writer, Mr. Ferlinghetti told me. (Burroughs did not visit the city until the 1970s, and after that only passed through on occasion.) “His vision of the future was as profound as any writer of his generation, and that includes George Orwell.” He was cheered that Bob Dylan received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. “Dylan was first of all a poet,” Mr. Ferlinghetti said. “His early songs were all long surrealist poems.”

I asked him how he managed to score a performance in “The Last Waltz,” Martin Scorsese’s documentary about The Band’s “farewell concert appearance.” It was filmed in San Francisco at the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. Less than a decade later, the Winterland was demolished to make room for apartment buildings. Other poets also read poems onstage before the concert began, but he was one of the few to appear in the film, he told me, because he spoke into the correct microphone.