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CITY LIGHTS BOOKS

Lynell George is a senior writer for West.

All this was before--before Adler Alley had been rechristened Kerouac, before the Condor Club tossed its kitschy sign (complete with stripper Carol Doda’s flashing red pasties) and long before anyone, anywhere, would have the temerity to open a “Beat Museum.” This earlier chapter, Elaine Katzenberger explains, was back when North Beach’s only monument to itself wasn’t a “museum” at all, just a scattering of mementos: a couple of wild bars and boisterous cafes and, of course, poet-activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s lively, literary meeting place, City Lights Books.

Back when Katzenberger landed here in San Francisco in the ‘80s, a high school valedictorian from Danbury, Conn., who’d dropped out of both Williams College and Berkeley--"still searching"--she wasn’t plugged in to what was going on in the quirky little bookshop. “That store, this corner, was like a vortex, though,” she says from her seat in a second-floor alcove in Vesuvio’s, one of those old wild bars. She orbited this intersection, that store, for years: worked as a bartender right here and later at a little beer joint around the corner while she studied painting and tried to figure out her next move.

It’s all a bit strange, Katzenberger admits--at this moment in particular--contemplating the very near future from the vantage of her past. Many a night she stood behind the long stretch of a bar downstairs, serving beers or bourbons, neat, offering a glass of water or simply patience to the more volatile “customers,” all the while only half-registering the view: the scruffy bookshop across Adler. There they’d be, the kids with knapsacks posing for snapshots in front of the gilt-lettered windows, the tourists struggling with loaded shopping bags, her own patrons settling in at a window table and, with a flex of both wrists, loosening the spine of a just-purchased paperback.

Back in those days, then-manager Richard Berman would frequently stop in for coffee or a drink and urge her to apply for a job at City Lights. She shrugged him off time and again: She had traveling to do. She never supposed that one day she’d be on the other side of the alley, behind that counter, or eventually upstairs, working in the publishing offices, or, for that matter, at 47, still on the same corner, watching the same curious pilgrims drift in from the world over, still taking snapshots, buying books.

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Everything Katzenberger revisits this evening, each memory she holds up for inspection, seems to be saying, “Am I doing this or is this happening to me?” For all her escapes--to Morocco, to massage school--just how did she happen to stay put on this corner for 20 years? And now, perhaps, for 20 more? In a matter of hours, she will become City Lights Booksellers & Publishers’ new executive director. It’s a management shift that might seem like marginalia but is something quite significant: Katzenberger will be the one leading City Lights into the future. And she’s spooked.

“I’m not a Beat icon! I’m not Lawrence! I’m Elaine! I don’t have a little white beard,” she says in a quiet, almost sing-song voice, as if reciting a mantra. “But menopause might take care of that,” she cracks. “I’ve given Lawrence my 20s, 30s and now my 40s. I just kept asking myself, when we started talking about this, ‘Is there anything else that you want to do? Anything else at all? Because if there is, you’d better do it now, because if you choose this, this will be it. It’s done.’”

The shift--"the transition"--has been a delicate, years-long dance, stepping around feelings, trying not to bump into egos. Imagine, she suggests, “having Lawrence pipe up during a meeting and say something like, ‘Why is everybody looking through me like I’m a ghost?’” And just to ratchet things up a bit--particularly if one is feeling superstitious--this week already has an off-kilter feel to it: a freak landslide just around the corner, a full moon due by the weekend. “After the landslide, it was really interesting to see who evacuated, the people spilling out on the street. The girls at Showgirls, a lot of Asians, old Italians,” she says. “People who have been here forever but who never talk to one another. There they were, together. A beautiful North Beach moment. Remnants of the village are still here. That lives on. But after that is gone, it’s gone.”

Temporality is one of the many things she’s wrestling with. That and even more amorphous, uncategorizable aspects of life, both hers and the store’s, this neighborhood’s. “I mean, I don’t want people walking around saying, ‘Oh yes, City Lights! That was a great place until Elaine broke it.’”

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There’s an old black-and-white photo pinned up in City Lights’ front window. The print is late-generation muddy, but deeply illuminating nonetheless: It’s of Ferlinghetti in a djellaba, head tipped heavenward, opening a large striped umbrella over the heads of a scruffy brood of writers, thinkers, musicians and hangers-on spilling out onto the sidewalk--some of them famous, most of them now gone. It is a poem in itself.

Established in 1953, City Lights was the nation’s first all-paperback bookshop. It was the brainchild of Peter D. Martin, who had begun publishing City Lights, a pop-culture journal named after the Charlie Chaplin classic, out of a cramped mezzanine space above what used to be a flower shop at the corner of Columbus and Adler. When the flower shop folded, Martin figured opening a bookshop might help with expenses--one operation funding the other and, hopefully, paying the rent. And just as he was putting up the “Pocket Books” sign, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was still getting established on the North Beach scene, serendipitously happened by on the way home from his painting studio. He pitched in $500 to match Martin’s to complete the historic transaction. “Once we got the door open,” he says, “we couldn’t get it closed.”

Although politics have always been a cornerstone of City Lights, “it was not just a leftist bookstore,” says Ferlinghetti. “It was, as well, a community meeting place where all sides would be represented. Right from the beginning we had this big magazine rack and periodical rack that stocked publications from all points of the spectrum.”

Eventually Martin moved back to Manhattan, to open the New Yorker Bookshop, and in 1955 Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers--its centerpiece the Pocket Poets Series, through which he aimed to create an “international, dissident ferment.” That would happen not only sooner but grander than he could have expected. In 1956, Pocket Poets edition No. 4 hit the stands, featuring the electrifying event of the title poem, “Howl,” written by 30-year-old Allen Ginsberg: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . .

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Ultimately, it led to Ferlinghetti’s arrest on obscenity charges, and the trial in 1957 drew international attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement. Though he and the bookstore’s then-manager, Shigeyoshi “Shig” Murao, were acquitted, it was a landmark 1st Amendment case, establishing the legal precedent of “redeeming social importance.” The modest storefront and the books stamped with an old guild mark--a heavily inked circle hovering over a Y--came to symbolize inquiry, activism, a path to truth.

If the “Howl” trial made City Lights famous, fixing it in the minds of so many as a guardian of free expression or “asylum,” what has sustained it for the succeeding 50 years is something far greater if less tangible. “If we didn’t have an independent press we’d really be screwed, and that’s where City Lights fits,” says the store’s book buyer, Paul Yamazaki. “The whole Beat thing is just one aspect. The resistance to power and what the printed word means is what we’re a part of.”

Known as the “Free University” or the “Literary Meeting Place,” it is a place to breathe in a deep whiff of vintage verisimilitude. The corner of Columbus and Adler was once a stop on Vaclav Havel’s itinerary; both Jerry Brown and George Will have been seen among the stacks. It is also a neighborhood hub, where waves of the city’s bewildered wandered in on the morning of 9/11 to reflect or vent. Over time it has gathered a patina and layers of nuance, so imbued with meaning that its facade in a film is shorthand for “bohemian restlessness/ennui” and so legendary that it need not be named--a literary evocation of its “creaking wood floors” or “dim lighting in the basement” is enough.

So many have formed deep, emotional relationships with the store, as if it is a living thing, particularly those who come in every day to pick up the paper, or just lose themselves in the stacks, the odd nooks and crannies, among the whimsical signs--"I Read Therefore I Am,” “Stash Your Sell-Phone and Be Here Now"--painted in Ferlinghetti’s own hand. “It was a big deal when we put in a new counter and got a second register,” says manager Andy Bellows. “We redid the floors--they were a little uneven, dark--that had a big impact too. Anything done here, any change, feels personal. And they let us know exactly how they feel.” Nor do customers hesitate to post “Dear City Lights” letters--about their vacations or the first book they bought here, or to weigh in on some issue in the news. “I just got a letter from a soldier in Iraq who sent a check for $50 to cover the cost of some books he’d stolen sometime way back,” says Ferlinghetti, “and wanted to make amends.”

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For those who’ve worked here, tending Ferlinghetti’s dream has become not just a paycheck but a calling. Shig Murao managed the store for more than 20 years, shaping and shading its character. In her 23 years as executive director, Nancy Peters led it out of dire times into grand, celebratory ones. (She’s been here 35 years in all and will remain on the board of directors.) And Katzenberger, who thought she’d stay until “I quote/unquote figured something out,” moved up from bookseller to book buyer to handling the store’s financial operations. She then moved over to the publishing wing, as editor, marketing director and, eventually, City Lights’ vice president and associate director.

“There were times in the past where I’d say to Elaine, ‘You’re going to be me,’” says Peters. In certain ways, watching her was like looking into a mirror. “There were some times when I’d gotten job offers and interested in other things, something more conventional, or a higher-paid job, but really, just being part of this thing and how important it was--it was more important than livelihood. When I started working here we were in the middle of the Vietnam War, and now it’s Iraq. This place has been a beacon, a place of learning and enlightenment. And when I think about it, how could I have done anything better?”

In fact, City Lights would not be here if not for Peters. “She held this place together in a way that I couldn’t have done,” says Ferlinghetti. If she had a plan of action, she didn’t share it with him ahead of time. She just got working. “This was 1982, and we were still operating like an old-time bookstore,” he says. “And we were being stolen blind and didn’t know it, because when we started here it was a bohemian neighborhood and there were no junkies and hard-core people on everything you can think of.” Sometime in between the careful stewardships of Shig and Richard Berman, things had gone awry. “We found lots of huge unpaid bills from lots of New York publishers shoved in the drawer and not reported on the books. We were almost out of business and didn’t know it. Well, I didn’t know it. I was flying around the world being a poet with my head up in the . . . oh, I don’t know where.”

The shop, over decades, has acquired more rooms, much like a coupling train. And the history of the neighborhood is told in the remnants: There’s the big space, off the entry room, that used to be a travel agency; the basement space that once stored the Chinese New Year’s dragon; the Literature in Translation room still has the old black-and-white barbershop floor; then up the steep stairs, through the poetry room and books by and about the Beat generation, you’ll find a short hallway, cordoned off by an elastic band, that leads to the editorial offices.

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Katzenberger’s workspace is efficient, uncluttered, much in the way she attires herself, in blacks and grays with one eye-catching pop--a vibrant scarf or a bold ring. From each window you see not just a postcard view of old North Beach, but of course, Katzenberger laughs, the Beat Museum, as if she needs the constant reminder. “Yeah, I want to say, ‘Come over here. We’ve got Kerouac’s molar!’” she snarks.

It’s not that she’s simply irritated by its presence. “Look, if they want to sell Beat hats and have an installation of a ‘Beat Pad,’ that’s just fiiiiine with me.” But seriously--very seriously--her concerns are as much about business as they are about protecting a legacy. “I didn’t think that they would be selling books. Our books! Our bread-and-butter books.” This is all part of it, of thinking of City Lights as both a living thing and an institution: “It’s not just curating a collection of books. We take pride in that history. We definitely need to use our history. We don’t want to seem crass and commercial, nor do you want to appear mired in history. You have to be really careful. And you know it when you cross the line,” she says.

“I’m old enough that I was around when Gregory [Corso] was coming in, and Allen [Ginsberg], and people do want the association. But it’s the problem with being an institution. It’s our trump card and our Achilles’ heel. Part of the work is to consistently remind people that you are contemporary and have always been, that this isn’t just some dusty old place. The stock is constantly being renewed, the focus is being renewed. People who come here--the customers, the writers from all over the world who come to drink wine and have lunch with Lawrence--bring in something of their interest in the world and layer on yet another thing, and there has always been space for all of that. And that’s what Lawrence set out to do.”

And what she hopes to continue, with the assistance of her team, which will include Yamazaki and Bellows, both of whom, like Katzenberger, have clocked 20 years or more. She’s already hired an editor to expand the publishing list in “politics and radical historical analysis” and is mid-project on a retooling of the website. But for starters, she wants to give the place a good scrubbing--both metaphorically and actually. “I’d say there’s dust here that has been here since the Beat Generation.” She’s already lightened up the basement, and today an electrician is working on the quirky wiring in the poetry room. But those are--comparatively--the easier things to accomplish.

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Not only has the conversation about the transition been protracted, it’s also been freighted--because no one really wants to confront what it ultimately means. An ending. A world without Ferlinghetti. (Who remains president of the enterprise and would be the first, depending on the situation, to make “croaking” jokes.) One of the other more difficult tasks is attempting to see into the future, she says, and trying to develop a plan, a narrative, that will delineate what City Lights means beyond a brand. “There needs to be a set of instructions--that Lawrence will write--that will let people know what City Lights is or isn’t. . . . Is this model going to be viable anymore? Is there an essence, a City Lights essence we have to protect? This has been our intention. If these goals can’t be fulfilled, then is City Lights done?”

Stacey Lewis, the marketing director, peeks in to find out if they are still planning to meet over the press release--refining the language, the list of who should be alerted and when. Katzenberger nods. After she disappears, Katzenberger realizes she’s forgotten to double-check some factoid. She begins to follow Lewis into another open office space where three or four staffers are bent over their Macs, walks through another room, then into the big office that Peters and Ferlinghetti share and--suddenly--into Ferlinghetti himself.

He looks up, peeling out of his trench coat and draping it over an old cafe chair, the seat painted in white script: “City Lights--First Chair 1953.” He smiles as if he has a secret, his eyes and the small silver earring in his right ear both shining. Katzenberger quickly dispenses with the “good mornings” so that she can show him the bruises on the back of her wrists from her kick-boxing class, pushing up the sleeves of her velvet blouse to offer a better view. He peers on with true, great interest, but changes the subject in reply: “Well, Elaine, I think congratulations are in order.” He smiles again. They hug. Katzenberger’s face is a blur of emotion. But before either of them slip out of their boundaries, he picks up a sheet of paper from an old wooden table. “One thing,” he says, his voice lifting as he turns his attention to the press release, seizing on the title “Executive Director"--not the designation, but the layers of connotation. “It sounds very corporate, very IBM CEO. . . .” In the ellipses, Katzenberger tries to find the meaning.

Even in this electronic age, news can trickle out all too slowly. Katzenberger is waiting for the announcement to sink in. So far only a handful of e-mails in her queue, a gift of strawberry-red tulips on her desk. There was a perfunctory squib in Publishers Weekly, and some phone calls. But other than that it’s been quiet--thuddingly anticlimactic.

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Nevertheless, we are on our way to a celebratory lunch, walking through the loud tangle of North Beach, where the waiters in their crisp white aprons haunting doorways on Columbus are just as predatory as the strip club barkers on Broadway. At Rose Pistola we order from a menu with, quite fittingly, a Ferlinghetti poem printed on the back. Katzenberger tells me of her dream last night--recurring--that at first sounds like a nightmare: “I’m walking down Columbus, but it doesn’t look like Columbus, it looks like Tokyo. All of these big signs, neon. I get to City Lights, and when I walk in I don’t recognize anyone . . . but it’s there. It looks the same. And then I calm down.”

The neighborhood is changing--no, it’s already changed. At the cafe next door you can quite literally see the past becoming the future: the old men arguing with the newspaper, hitting the folded page for emphasis, the younger patrons staring into their laptops, e-mailing across the city or the globe. Katzenberger understands this as much as she resists it. “You read on these blogs about ‘You farty old lefty publishers, you’re just publishing for the Depends generation--get with it’ or ‘You haven’t had a creative idea in blah blah blah.’ It can really be demoralizing, because you think, ‘Is that true?’ But I do have this image now that I use sometimes: What I’m responsible for is that City Lights doesn’t end up in the tar pits.” As “community” and “bookstore"--the ideas of them--become larger and more abstract, how does a bookstore and publisher stay not just current but relevant, necessary?

“There was this certain point in the trajectory where this transition at City Lights was getting closer and more apparent,” she says, “and it dawned on me: I’ve been sitting here with this piece of clay in my hands, all these years, and I’ve been shaping something, but I haven’t been looking at it. And I need to look at what I’ve made and actually, intentionally make it. That’s what I need to do. Now.”

We walk back to find her spartan office looking more like a hothouse--climbing with exotics, things that don’t look like they could exist in this atmosphere. There is a planter with a card from Ferlinghetti’s girlfriend that breaks through Katzenberger’s composure, pushes her into tears. She rereads the lines and reflects, “Who says being a poet doesn’t pay?”

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She collects herself on the way down the staircase and across the busy selling floor, and we chat for a while longer just outside the shop door. There is a long line of people waiting for the bus; a couple kissing, posing in Kerouac Alley; someone sleeping off a drunk, or the day, on the cold pavement; a sharp scent of Hunan food. Katzenberger stands with her arms folded casually, her head resting on the door frame, as if she’s already home, saying goodbye to her dinner guests.

We say our goodbyes and I head back up Columbus Avenue, crossing at Broadway--and I walk right past him: the man with the little white beard, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I don’t recognize him at first, even with his City Lights tote hanging from his shoulder. Something about the way the late light hits or how his cap is pulled down so low. He stands on the far corner, staring, regarding the bookshop from a distance, the rush-hour traffic thundering past. He crosses and now stands before it, still far enough away to take in its entirety. A moment passes, and then another. Finally he moves in closer, as a conscientious proprietor would, checking on the usual things--the books in the display, the signage in the windows--until he steps across the threshold and disappears inside.


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