Ferlinghetti Charts Literate Course
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is poet, owner of City Lights Book Store and promoter of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac
By Greg Tozian
Tribune Staff Writer
July 8, 1984
SAN FRANCISCO — The entrance to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legendary City Lights Book Store curves around a hilly corner of Columbus Avenue, like the bow of a stone and glass ship.
For much of his life, the 65-year-old Ferlinghetti has excelled at steering vessels, literally and figuratively, through rough waters.
As a 24-year-old officer in the Navy, he skippered a sub-chaser during the Normandy invasion.
But it was after the war, when Ferlinghetti became a poet and publisher of such Beat generation writers as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, that he fought his most famous battles.
Books he published were confiscated as “obscene” by San Francisco police and became the focus of censorship trials. The most celebrated was the 1955 obscenity trial over Ginsberg’s slim poetry volume, “Howl.” The book went on to sell more than 400,000 copies and has become an acknowledged classic.
Arguably the most famous bookseller in the world. Ferlinghetti established City Lights as the world’s first paperbacks-only bookstore 31 years ago. (it is open from 10 a.m. until midnight, seven days a week.) Authors have rallied and read here over the years, the police have faced off with the scribes and their supporters, and “customers” can — and do — stand around the shop reading all day and into the night without ever buying a book.
Ferlinghetti’s cramped upstairs office looks over a railing into the fiction section and out through a long plate glass window to the looming façade of the Bank of America across noisy Columbus Avenue.
He shares the cluttered space with “Pooch,” a shaggy dog, and the “editorial department” of his publishing company.
A poster of Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp and a Chaplinesque black bowler hang on the wall, attesting, as does the store’s name, to Ferlinghetti’s love for that well-known underdog.
“When my original partner, Peter Martin, and I opened the store in 1953, the only place you could get paperbacks, and they were few and cheap ones, was in drugstores and places like that,” Ferlinghetti says in his distinctly soft voice.
“The books were merchandise like toothpaste. The store owners didn’t know books.
“There wasn’t any place for poets in those days either,” he adds. “It was the Joe McCarthy era, the days of the House on Un-American Activities Committee. I had come from Europe, where I’d been on the G.I. Bill, and I was used to literary cafes, and when I came back here there weren’t any cafes.
“So at City Lights, we had little café tables where people could sit down and browse and so forth, but no coffee. The idea was never to disturb the customer when he was trying to read …
“But,” he adds, “they (the clerks) will help you if you ask for it … It’s not that every clerk can give you a lecture on Sartre and Camus, but they come close to it.”
City Lights is arranged on two levels. The airy, street-level portion has “new arrivals,” fiction, surrealism, film and art books, the current magazines and City Lights Publications.
In the basement, there are thousands of books — some used — on subjects including poetry, literature, religion, philosophy, Third World literature and the work of the famed Beat Generation.
Here, near posters of James Joyce and Walt Whitman, tables, chairs and a church pew are available for customers who want to sit and read. An enormous dictionary lies on a wooden stand against one wall and a framed front page from a yellowed newspaper reads, “Brawl at Poets’ Recital. Three Policemen Bitten.”
“People spend all day in the basement still,” Ferlinghetti says, adding that “people have gotten locked in here overnight.”
One of the few bows City Lights has made to modern times is the installation of an electronic detection device.
“We were being run out of business by professional book thieves,” Ferlinghetti explains. “It wasn’t like the old days when you had a few bohemians who might want to steal some book they wanted to read. Now it’s the hard-core, mostly junkies who work in teams. And they can clean out a whole section in one day.
“You can’t shame them, you can’t scare them away. They need to get their junk. The electronic machine has made a lot of difference.
“But this is the post-literate age now,” the bookstore owner continues. “Our customers are the diehards who haven’t given up reading yet. They are the last of a breed. A bookstore’s really a way of life.
“If people don’t want to follow it anymore, we probably won’t have them anymore, which will probably happen.”
Could City Lights ever again become the flash point for the confiscation of “obscene” or “subversive” material and the focal point of censorship trails?
The publisher smirks, shakes his head and says, “In this country we have some forms of censorship. The privately owned, Republican press censors the news for its own ends. That is much more insidious censorship than anything that’s gone on in the literary world (before) … Reagan is making it much more easy; by quiet and subtle means, he’s limiting various freedoms and civil rights …
“And it’s quite possible for new eras of censorship (in publishing) to arise. It’s much harder under the present laws and court cases that are now on the books for a police authority to win a censorship case. And it began with the ‘Howl’ trial that we had here, which established the precedent in other cases. It enabled Grove Press to publish ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ and ‘Naked Lunch.’
“But,” he adds, “censorship is always possible.”
In the beginning, most of City Lights’ fame came from publishing poetry. Besides “Howl,” titles included Gregory Corso’s “Gasoline” and Ferlinghetti’s own “Pictures of the Gone World” and “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1955).
But things have changed.
“When we started publishing poetry, there weren’t many people who would publish it. Now, there are hundreds of poetry presses all over the country … so it’s not really something that we try to compete with. We’re still doing our Pocket Poet Series, but it’s an event when something comes out.” The last Pocket Poet Series book was published three years ago.
The City Lights Books catalog for fall-winter ’84 includes Ferlinghetti’s own prose book, “Seven Days in Nicaragua Libre.”
The book, still being written, derives from a fact-finding, week-long visit to Central America earlier this year. “It’s pro-Sandinista,” Ferlinghetti says simply. “It’s a humane revolution going on down there and not really a Communist one.
“Only four percent of the population in Nicaragua belongs to the Communist Party and another seven percent belong to a socialist party that is not Soviet-oriented. This is the bullshit that gets by in the U.S. It’s like the days of the McCarthy era — painting everything with a big, Communist, capital ‘R’ red brush …”
Ferlinghetti says America’s involvement in Nicaragua is an economically motivated smokescreen: “The Nicaraguan government is trying to avoid the same mistakes that Cuba was forced into. When the U.S. government says they are afraid of the domino theory in Central America … they are really afraid that it is a very contagious idea: economic freedom. When one country gets control of its own economic life, which is what happened in Cuba … then the people are no longer subject to working for 50 cents a day for a U.S. corporation …
“So what they really mean by the domino theory is that their cheap labor market, the slave-labor market that they’ve had for three centuries, is going to be taken away from them.”
Ferlinghetti’s book is prose because, “You can’t deal with issues like this in poetry … prose is best suited for dialectical arguments.”
Even so, he is concerned that today’s American poets aren’t making important statements about anything: “The current literary scene in San Francisco is moribund. The only life that’s seen on the surface is happening in the Mission District, the Latino poets — they are the only ones who are showing any activism these days.
“Among the Anglo poets in San Francisco, they’re issuing a low mumble, pertaining to world survival. They are maintaining a silence closely resembling stupidity.
“There are … dozens and dozens of poetry readings going on, poetry series, on a regular basis all over town. What’s being said, and it’s the same in painting, is nil. There’s nothing substantive.
“Supposedly, an intellectual is one who’s supposed to know how to think. And you find very little thinking going on among the poets in the United States these days” he says.
Despite all that, Ferlinghetti skippers his guiding City Lights Book Store much as he did in its howling heyday of the ‘50s and ‘60s, seemingly signaling that to those who still need it there is at least one port left in the storm.