City Lights Bookstore: History
City Lights Bookstore is located at 261 Columbus Avenue between Broadway and Jack Kerouac Alley. The store is situated in North Beach and surrounded by several neighborhoods including the Financial District, China Town, and Russian Hill. The 1906 earthquake leveled the original building that stood at the site. However, the brick arches from the original building were salvaged and incorporated into the construction of the Artigues Building in 1907 (Morgan: 2003). The Artigues Building originally housed several businesses including a flower shop, an Italian travel agency, a barber shop and A. Cavalli & Co. which is still in business today at another location (Morgan: 2003). At first, City Lights Books rented and occupied a small area of the building. City Lights came to occupy more and more of the building as the business expanded over time. This culminated in the purchase of the entire building in 2000. The triangular building was initially overlooked as a site of architectural and historical significance until the 1950s when Peter Martin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened the first paperback bookstore in the nation. While the physical building clearly symbolizes City Lights’ historical significance, the intangible heritage is embodied within Peter Martin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. To truly understand the tangible and intangible history of City Lights Books, we must look to the key players and original owners of City Lights.
Peter D. Martin was a sociology teacher at San Francisco State College (now SFSU) who published a popular culture magazine called City Lights. Ferlinghetti was a U.S. Navy veteran. He received a Master’s Degree from Columbia University in 1947 and a Doctorate de l’Université de Paris (Sorbonne) in 1950. He eventually settled in San Francisco in 1951 where he taught French in an adult education program, painted, and wrote art criticism. He and Martin founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country in 1953.
By 1955 Martin left City Lights to start his own bookstore in New York City and Ferlinghetti became sole owner of City Lights. He founded City Lights Publishing in 1955, beginning with Ferlinghetti’s Pocket Poet series, which now has nearly 200 books in print. Ferlinghetti, a painter and a poet, is the recipient of numerous prizes. Most recently Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate in August 1998. He was later awarded the Robert Frost Memorial Medal, the Author’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003. Ferlinghetti has played an unforgettable role as a champion for free speech, a representative of the Beat movement (although he doesn’t claim to be a Beat poet), and businessman who provided a space for dissident voices. City Lights has served for half a century as a meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals and is a symbol of counter culture, revolution, and free speech.