Author Archives: literarymeetingplace

City Lights Bookstore: Other Beat Cities

While San Francisco is often attributed as the main gathering place of the Beat movement, the movement was also international and the cities listed below played important parts as well.

New York

  • Many of the Beats attended Columbia University where they met through classes and mutual friends
  • Began to get together regularly to discuss different topics, poetry, and explore the city
  • Influenced by the jazz scene,  coffee shops, and art scene.  The jazz scene in particular influenced Kerouac’s poetry as he tried to mimic the jazz rhythm in his writing


  • The Beats were attracted to the Latin Quarter and cheap rates at Madame Rachou’s hotel (cheap because it lacked proper accommodations such as a kitchen, access to showers)
  • The city provided a free environment for the Beats to experiment in many ways through poetry, sexuality, and community

Mexico City

  • Accessible through the Pan American Highway, promotion of tourism by the Mexican government, peso devaluation
  • Beats inspired to visit after friends’ experiences and books written about the country
  • Attracted to the easy lifestyle the city provided but later became disenchanted after certain events
  • Jack Kerouac visited and lived in the city multiple times,  and wrote many works, including Mexico City Blues
  • William Burroughs lived in the city with his wife and children, hosted friends, and wrote other works.  Also ended up accidentally killing his wife in drunken game of “William Tell”
  • Other Beats attended school and took courses in indigenous languages and anthropology

City Lights Bookstore: Project Profiles

Below are some extended descriptions of projects our teams proposed for City Lights.

Virtual City Lights
Creating a virtual City Lights would provide access to all people, ensuring that those who cannot physically visit the space have the opportunity to experience all that City Lights has to offer.  The opening page would be the entry to City Lights Books, the first space one encounters when they enter the store.  When physically visiting the store a customer would have the opportunity to check-in their bag, ask staff about various titles carried or about certain sections.     From the point of entry, the visitor could choose to wander the main floor, visit the basement, or visit the second floor.  If the visitor decides that they would like to see the “Stolen Continents” section they are directed to the basement. The visitor is “lead downstairs” demonstrated by a video camera that zooms in on the basement from the top of the stairs.  Once in the basement the visitor can peruse the section they’re interested in by seeing a direct, head-on shot of the available titles.  To “look” at a book, the visitor would click on the title which would link them to the book’s information webpage.  This page provides a brief description of the book and an option for more detailed information.
We would like to note that part of the visitor’s experience should include sound to make the experience as authentic and interesting as possible. Some ideas for incorporating sound include people reading their poetry, spoken word clips, historical audio clips, and clips from reading by visiting writers.  We do not want the audio clips to be a primary experience for the visitor and therefore too distracting however, so we would ensure that visitors have the opportunity to mute the sounds.
The visitor is not required to travel through the website in a linear fashion but rather has the option to make this a multi-dimensional experience with the freedom to explore the site.  A visitor can “travel” floor by floor or section by section.  For example, if the visitor reads about a poet in the history section and wants to see that poet’s collection they could travel to the main entry for directions or if they are familiar with the site “travel” directly to the poetry section or to the third floor.
We hope to make the experience as authentic and personable online as they might experience actually visiting the store in person.
Share Your Poem Project
The “Share Your Poem Project” will focus on giving an audience to voices that aren’t always heard and linking the residents of the Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods together through the process of recording and sharing poetry. The “Share Your Poem Project,” will invite local residents to contribute poetry through recording and listening stations set up throughout the community, and increase the number of literary voices in the air of the neighborhood. The emphasis on local residents as the intended participants will also foster neighborhood connections and a sense of community to help maintain City Lights as a Literary Meeting Place, a theme and principle it was founded upon. People who want to be a part of the project can stop into an old phone both converted into “poetry station” and submit their favorite poem. They can compose their own work, recite something they were taught as a child, or read any poem that has stuck with them. They can also listen to others contributions.
There will be 8 stations set up at locations within the two neighborhoods (in addition to City Lights) that already serve as important gathering places. The neighborhood is often overwhelmed by tourists, yet the locations selected are more “everyday” on the surface and aim to serve people living in the neighborhood, even those who have no personal connection to City Lights. Each station will have both a recording booth and a listening booth. The recording booth will include an audio recorder, pen and paper, and a typewriter. The listening booth will include a bulletin board and headphones to display the poems recorded in the designated station. Each booth has been placed in a location that either fosters beat generation/literary ideals or that reaches a distinct part of the community that we hope to include in the project. The locations are displayed below, followed by an explanation as to why they are sites of importance for this project.
In order to reach those who aren’t particularly interested in poetry, there will also be a different copy of one collection from the City Lights Pocket Poet Series at each station. This will be designed to increase participation to include those who may have never written poetry before or who have not received enough exposure to poetry to be able to recite or write down a favorite poem.  Even people who have never read poetry before can read through the poems from the City Lights series and recite one of the poems out loud for the aduio recorder, adding their own personal touch and bringing it to life. The inclusion of early well-known poems published by City Lights in this series (such as Howl) will also help people connect to the the history and realize the relevance of older work in the neighborhood today and may help inspire people to write their own poems.
One of the goals of this project is to connect the people who visit different sites in Chinatown and North Beach in their daily routines. Spatially. these two neighborhoods not only closely border each other, but are tightly woven together and in some areas the boundary is unclear. Yet they seem to be considered very different neighborhoods. There have already been a few public art projects that have emphsized the physical and literary connection between the two neighborhoods. The aim of this project is to strengthen the connection of people and ideas in both neighborhoods.
There will also be live reading events in connection with the poems collected. However, keeping in spirit with the idea of sharing and connecting, people will not recite the poem that they contributed, but instead pick another from the collection. There will be “happy hour” reading events occurring on weekday evenings for those who live in the neighborhood to stop by on their way home from work. The weekend scene seems to be filled with tourists and rowdy partiers who frequent the adult entertainment clubs, so these evening events will provide a nice contrast as they will be more low-key and hopefully appeal to local residents.

“Howl” Trial Re-Enactment

This project aims for City Lights Bookstore to preserve the heritage of free speech that it pioneered.  While the purpose behind City Lights Bookstore was to promote free speech and thought that was not able to be expressed elsewhere, the historical event that solidified and gave credibility to City Lights’ purpose was the “Howl” trial.  “Howl” was written by Allen Ginsberg and was published and distributed by City Lights. However, the sale of this work was stopped and deemed obscene.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao were taken to court and charged with obscenity because of the poem’s references to drugs and heterosexual and homosexual acts.  Keeping in mind this was all occurring during the late 1950s and that nothing like this had ever taken place before, the monumental decision that did not deem the work obscene but rather that it was of “redeeming social importance” was a landmark.
In order to highlight the importance of the trial and its impact, we would like to propose to have a re-enactment of part of the trial in conjunction with other events.  Seeing as how City Lights continues to promote literary events such as readings, we believe it would be a good idea to continue in this tradition and do brief theatrical re-enactments of either parts of the trial, or the arrest that lead to the trial.  One idea would be to perform different parts of the trial in chronological order and have the performances coincide with the plaza event.  The performances would take place before the actual plaza celebration in order to attract interest and hype up the event. City Lights’s Poetry Room would be a fitting setting in which to perform scenes because it provides space and it also highlights that Ginsberg’s “Howl” was essentially a poem.  In order to signify the importance of the trial and the decision, the opening scene before the trial could be that an actor (or willing participant/attendee), at the register paying for merchandise is suddenly “arrested” for purchasing “obscene” merchandise.  Once the customer and cashier are “taken away”, a narrator could pose the question, “Imagine if what you read was regulated today?” This opening question could lead some of the attendees to reflect as they watch the re-enactment progress.
Keeping in mind that “Howl” was a poem, and the people present at the re-enactment might want to discuss what they just saw and debrief with other audience members, it might also be a fun idea do a “Poetry as a Weapon” workshop after the performance.  While the workshop has Bay Area youth as its target audience,  it would be available to anyone who is interested in participation.  Themes to be used as inspiration are: free-speech, censorship, activism, and life journeys.  To link the present with the past, Beat authors could facilitate the workshops. These poetry workshops could be used to demonstrate the impact and power of words can have to create social change and reinforce freedom (of word, speech, expression).

City Lights Bookstore: Plans and Suggestions

Taking into account the different components that have been presented in City Lights bookstore  management plan, our team has come up with different suggestions and recommendations that will be helpful to implement through an action plan that can be very beneficial for City Lights, both as a bookstore and as a cultural heritage site.  Below are timeline suggestions as well as brief descriptions of what the recommendations entail.

Short Term Plans & Suggestions (to be considered within the next 5 years):

  • Establish a timeline or routine to check for building’s seismic and earthquake safety and implement it periodically.
  • Begin looking into possibilities of making bookstore ADA accessible and examine alteration guidelines established by the city for historical landmarks.
  • Brainstorm ways in which businesses that are historically tied to the Beat Movement might be able to collaborate to increase both the visitor and tourist market that would benefit all businesses involved. Continue collaboration if successful.

Medium Term Plans & Suggestions (to be considered within the next 10 years):

  •  Discuss and consider the possibility of tapping into new markets such as the electronic book industry.
  • If ADA accessibility is not completely realistic with building alteration, ideas such as “Virtual City Lights” and the book request kiosk should be considered.
  • Outreach to North Beach and Chinatown residents and businesses to begin a coalition that meets regularly to discuss the ways in which the cost of living is affecting the community and neighborhoods and what can be done about it.
  • Examine how the commemoration of dissident and marginalized voices within the Beat Movement can be executed and come up with project ideas and events.

Long Term Plans & Suggestions (to be considered within the next 25 years):

  • Look into and research ways in which the Poet’s Plaza can become a reality. Although there are currently monetary and capacity limitations, promoting the idea now might lead to public interest and potential donors that may help fund the project in order to turn it into a reality.
  • Despite being named a historical landmark, it is in City Lights’ interest to continue to promote its history and contribution in order to emphasize its relevancy and stay in business. Projects like “Share Your Own Poem” and “Howl” trial re-enactment should be carried out and can be possibly incorporated into annual events.

City Lights Bookstore: Threats to the Site

The potential expansion of the financial district is a threat to the neighborhood that supports City Lights, and therefore a threat to City Lights itself. The bookstore sits right on the edge of San Francisco’s economic center. Despite the proximity to the skyscrapers, North Beach has continued to maintain a small, cohesive true neighborhood feel with some relatively affordable housing, mainly in the form of SRO (single room occupancy) hotels and small apartments. While City Lights owns the building that they operate from, neighboring residential buildings and businesses face the threat of being displaced by higher-profit tenants. The potential change to the demographic of the tenants could dramatically alter the character of the neighborhood. Preventing developers who try to expand high rises and condominiums into the Chinatown and North Beach areas will continue to be crucial in preserving the City Lights community.

Keeping rent affordable for tenants is vital in keeping the literary nature to the neighborhood. In order to maintain a creative community that is supportive of City Lights it is vital to keep the single room occupancy hotels in the area so that particularly artists (including the poets of the Beat Generation who may be nearing an age where they are too old to work) and creative folk struggling financially can still stay in the neighborhood and bring their work to the community.

Here are some links to community groups working on behalf of the neighborhood in various ways:

Chinatown Community Development Center:

North Beach Merchants Association:

Telegraph Hill Dwellers:

North Beach Citizens:

Manilatown Heritage Foundation (I-Hotel senior housing):


City Lights Bookstore: Poet’s Plaza

To continue the idea of the “literary meeting place” a vision for a “Poet’s Plaza” has been put forward by City Lights founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The Poet’s Plaza is proposed to be built on the portion of Vallejo Street between the National Shrine of Saint Francis and Cafe Trieste, between Columbus and Grant Streets. The plan includes olive trees, stone benches, chess tables, and one corner of the square will have a permanent poet’s podium. The plaza will reflect the characteristics of well-known Italian piazzas and be a meeting place for poets, the local community and tourists from around the world. Ferlinghetti’s idea is in the fundraising stage, and he has stated that three million dollars is needed.

to learn more visit the project website:


City Lights Bookstore: Site Management


City Lights is celebrated both as a place of rich history and as a thriving business that continues to serve its customers just as well as it did when it was first opened. These two functions complement each other, yet it means that there are two different management goals. City Lights needs to be managed both as a business and as a historical site.

To remain a thriving business it is important to work to remain relevant and current in publishing and bookselling, rather than just trying to capitalize solely on the rich history. Ferlinghetti and the management staff are well aware of this and are fully integrated into the modern contexts of both the publishing and bookselling realms as they continue to give voice to many who may not be heard elsewhere. The current executive director of the bookstore and editorial director of City Lights Publishers said in an interview with Publishers Weekly, “We can’t stay mired in history—and never wanted to. We’re not going to just get by because we’re the ‘vaunted City Lights.’ The bohemian bank account isn’t really getting many deposits these days.” (Wilner 2007) City Lights continues to publish and sell current, cutting-edge works that one can’t find many other places.


Currently the role of managing the history largely occurs off-site at the Beat Museum across the street from the store. While in City Lights much of the original décor (signs, shelving etc.) is the same and there are photographs and merchandise for sale that celebrates the bookstore’s past, for the most part the Beat Museum is the place that tells the history of City Lights and the Beat Generation through the artifacts that it houses. The museum is not associated in any way with the management of the store and is owned separately. The museum’s collection contains a wide mix ranging from items that the owner, Jerry, has been collecting since his childhood interest in the Beats began and other items donated or on loan from various people, many of whom still live in the neighborhood.

Brandon from the Beat Museum speaks about the Beats

learn more! at The Beat Museum Website:


City Lights Bookstore: Community

Community Geography


Jack Kerouac Alley

Audio Profile: Street Performer Renee de la Prade

City Lights is located at the point where three vibrant San Francisco neighborhoods converge. Chinatown, North Beach, and the Financial District all bring different crowds from the surrounding streets to the store. Being open from 10 am to midnight means that visitors to the store vary greatly as the area experiences dramatic temporal changes. The morning hours begin with a burst of energy in the cafes, where poets and others gather to muse. On weekdays, the daytime audience may be the business folk wandering up from the financial district on their lunch break looking for food, particularly Chinese or Italian. Around five, the crowd that surrounds the store becomes people coming home from work and stopping to buy groceries at the many Chinese markets. Around this time readings and speakers draw people into the store. As it gets dark the lights begin to glow and the air begins to buzz with the bar crowd. On weekend nights in particular, the neighborhood gets rowdy as people, both locals and tourists, come to visit the nightclubs featuring erotic entertainment. With the coming together of so many different interests within this unique geography surrounding City Lights, approaches to reach visitors must be fluid and easy to adjust to meet the needs of the various moments.

City Lights Bookstore: Women of the Beat Movement

Carolyn Cassady, Brenda Frazer, Joanne Kyger, Diane DiPrima, and Hettie Jones are a few of the historical voices from the margins that chronicled the reality of the women of the Beat movement. Cassady, author of Off the Road, was responsible for the mortgage when husband Neal Cassady lost money betting at the racetrack but this didn’t hold her back from pursuing her own literary agenda (Morgan: 2003).  Frazer, author of Troia: Mexican Memoirs, worked as a prostitute to support her family while husband Ray Bremser focused on avoiding the law and prison.  Kyger, was able to move through many literary circles and break into the literary male circle.  DiPrima uses “rhetoric to her own advantage” by turning “masculine traditions…and using it against itself” (Charters 1992: 359). DiPrima, mother of five children, has had her poem about an early abortion used as propaganda to support the pro-life movement’s cause.  Jones, writes of her transformation from a young Jewish woman to the wife of a radical African-American writer.  Jones supported herself and her husband on a full-time day job only to come home in the evenings to help her husband run an underground magazine and press.

Male writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jack Spicer and Neal Cassady dominated the Beat movement, while women were defined by the movement’s male circles and continued in their marginal roles as wives, mothers, or lovers (Davidson: 1989).  A movement that stressed independence, free choice, and shucking social conformity ensnared many women in traditional roles teeming with domestic responsibility.  The post-war 1950s embodied certain attitudes towards women that relegated them to traditional female roles but created conflicting expectations as women became a strong presence in the workforce (Davidson: 1989).  The Beat movement may have reinforced 1950s sexist attitudes and misogynistic views towards women but the women of the Beat movement created a foundation for future feminist movements.

The women of the Beat Movement  would continually push back against the confining attitudes towards their gender and redefine their future role.  These fearless leaders unabashedly challenged society’s attitudes towards women by creating a life of their own which embraced their courage, intellect, and sexuality. The freedom they experienced and the progress they made as intellectual equals with their male counterparts would inspire future generations of feminists.   Many of today’s feminists and women writers derive their inspiration from the women of the Beat movement.

Voices continue to migrate from the margins into mainstream culture due in part to bookstores and publishers such as City Lights who ensure people from all backgrounds are given a voice.  Ferlinghetti adds that, “the most interesting writing today comes from Third World writers or women” whose revolution is still underway (Wilner 2007: 34).  City Lights strives for freedom of speech as well as for freedom to express oneself without rigid academic and social constraints.


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.