Indie Bookstore Spotlight: City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, San Francisco, CA

ADDRESS: 261 Columbus Avenue (at Broadway), San Francisco CA, 94133

HOURS: 10 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week

FOOD/DRINKS: No café; drinks during certain signings or special events only.

ON THE WEB: Website, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, Podcast, as well as a newsletter signup on their home page.

HISTORY: Originally an all-paperback book store, City Lights was founded in 1953 by Beat poet Lawrence Ferglinghetti and Peter D. Martin. It has since expanded to three floors (the top floor being the Poetry Room dedicated to the works of the Beat writers, and where City Lights hosts its author events) of both hardcovers and paperbacks, including an impressive selection of titles from small, indie publishers. Two years after opening the bookstore, Ferlinghetti began publishing books under the City Lights banner, as well.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Columbus and Broadway is the epicenter of North Beach, the Italian enclave of San Francisco. Some traces of old Barbary Coast vice can still be found in this neighborhood, but there are also some of the city’s most venerated restaurants, bars and cafés packed into just a few square blocks, including Café Trieste, more or less the official coffee house of the Beat generation, Tosca (Hunter S. Thompson’s old watering hole), as well as Spec’s and Vesuvio, two bars that epitomize old San Francisco. Not to mention the Beat Museum. Let’s just say that North Beach will keep you busy for an afternoon.

WHY IT'S AWESOME: Where to begin? I’ve always referred to City Lights as the CBGB’s of bookstores. Founded by the man who rubbed elbows with luminaries such as Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac, City Lights was also the publisher who gave us Ginsberg's Howl, among a host of ground-breaking titles. The store itself has that warm, cramped-in-a-good-way feeling you get from places where books are crammed into every spare inch of space (think of the old Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle or, if you’ve been in Southern California long enough to remember Either/Or in Hermosa Beach, then you get the idea.

The main floor has the requisite stacks of contemporary and classic fiction, and a daunting array of translated literature from every corner of the globe. If you’re looking for poetry, you can have your fill on the top floor; genre fiction and the bulk of the non-fiction is in the basement. Down the narrow, creaky staircase is where you’ll find their selection of science fiction and crime fiction, along with theater (both plays and criticism), music and film theory (including more titles on Dada and surrealism than you thought existed) and the sciences. But it’s politics where City Lights really flexes its muscle. The basement is crammed full of political science and social criticism in a range of sections including green politics, feminism and gender studies, with some shelves brazenly labeled with categories like Muckraking and Stolen Continents.

Even if you know exactly what you’re looking for, it’s virtually impossible to get in and out of City Lights without being seduced by all the book spines coming at you from every direction. It’s best to plan your day around the visit.

THE VERDICT: I hope to be buried there. Your reaction may vary, but it’s definitely worth the trip.


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Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 14, 2011 - 8:05am

For as much of this country that I've seen, it's sort of shameful that I've never been out to California.

I'm hoping to fix that soon, and when I do I clearly need to put this on the itinerary. Sounds like heaven. 

Dan's picture
Dan from Santa Monica, CA is reading Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk December 14, 2011 - 7:56pm

Thanks for this Craig.

Sounds great!

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest December 15, 2011 - 4:18am

Never been to Cali, but if I get out west I'll be sure to stop by. Quick recommendation: Atomic Books in Baltimore. Great independent bookstore.

yesjessica's picture
yesjessica from Chicago December 31, 2011 - 9:17am

I've visited this book store all three times I visited San Francisco!

On a side note, do you by chance need a Chicago correspondent to write a post like this for independent book stores in Chicago?  I have a few in mind and would be honored to take on the task.