December 1, 2007
One played host to the Lost Generation, the other to the Beat
Generation. Penny Watson catches up with a couple of literary classics.
City Lights, the nondescript bookshop occupying the corner of a busy
intersection in San Francisco's North Beach, sits beside Vesuvio, a
marvellously rustic old bar-cum-cafe festooned in coloured tiles and
daubed with esoteric quotations. The latter is so eye-catching it is
easy to walk right past the former.
But while the graceful, harp-like spans of the Golden Gate Bridge and
the ghostly penal banality of Alcatraz - and bars such as Vesuvio -
are unmissable on a trip to San Francisco, so, too, is this
bibliophile landmark. It's an essential site for anyone who has burnt
the midnight oil thumbing the well-worn pages of a literary classic.
Known for more than half a century as a hub for writers,
intellectuals and artists, City Lights has a story as good as any in
the books cramming the shelves in the basement or stacked to the
ceiling in the attic, where comfy chairs allow penniless punters to
sit and read without purchasing.
It harks back to the conservative 1950s, when poet and co-founder
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's penchant for dissidence elevated his small
publishing house into the limelight. He published Howl, Allen
Ginsberg's explicit, epic poem exploring gay sex and spirituality,
which led to the publisher's arrest on charges of obscenity.
The subsequent trial drew the attention of the literati and academics
across the US. Ferlinghetti's acquittal resulted in a legal precedent
supporting the publication of controversial work with "redeeming
The palaver crystallised City Lights in the minds of many as the
heart and soul of the Beat Generation, a movement encapsulated by the
tight-knit, like-minded young writers such as Ginsberg whose verve
for life and its excesses resulted in a fresh approach to literature
and travel. Importantly, it also doubled as a social stance against
the politics and morals of the day.
Today the shop is less beatnik, frequented by backpackers, students,
academics and budding authors (of which San Francisco has many). But
anecdotes of its reckless past still lurk tellingly amid the
bookshelves like the mise-en-scene in a French film. Its historical
evocations are as inspirational as the tomes are weighty.
I pick up a flimsy paperback copy of On the Road by another legendary
Beat writer, Jack Kerouac. His iconic, largely autobiographical
travel tale chronicles the journey of Sal Paradise across the heart
of America in the late 1940s. The text is layered with characters
whose pseudonyms read like a who's who of the Beat scene, including
Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, and other characters such as William S. Burroughs.
Kerouac dedicates many pages to describing his irreverent "Frisco"
escapades and his dreamily long sentences - streams of consciousness
that became his trademark - still ring true. "The fabulous white city
of San Francisco on her 11 mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its
advancing wall of potato-path fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in
the late afternoon of time."
The city is, indeed, fabulous. It reaches down to the bay like an
A-line skirt, stretching the view to its limits and providing
lookouts, scenic drives and watery vistas for shops, restaurants and
San Francisco's signature weatherboard terraces.
Its lively neighbourhoods have unique personalities, founded in a
history of immigrant and working-class people and a subsequent influx
of creative free-thinkers.
Hilltop North Beach, the neighbourhood surrounding City Lights, is
the best place to tuck into a bowl of spaghetti or sip an espresso.
Down by the water, Fisherman's Wharf is well known for its
hollowed-out bread bowls full of creamy clam chowder. On the other
side of town the Mission, favoured by the Latino set, has a tradition
of extravagant murals championed by the Mexican muralist Diego
Rivera, the husband of fellow artist Frida Kahlo. Then there is the
Castro, a bustling gay area with rainbow flags aloft.
Perhaps the best place to glimpse San Francisco as it might have been
in Kerouac's day is the Haight. Here, retro clothes shops, organic
cafes, record stores and shops specialising in marijuana
paraphernalia line the footpaths.
These colourful haunts provide fertile creative ground for writers
and an exciting and diverse hub for travellers. This is perhaps not
surprising in a city with a population that, according to Lonely
Planet, "buys more books per person than anywhere else in the US and
hoards three times more library books than the national average".
With a foot in both the writing and travelling camps I can only
agree, to paraphrase Kerouac, that San Francisco is "America's most
Three weeks later, on a trip to Paris, another literary landmark
crosses my path. Scores of tourists mill pie-eyed around the entrance
to Notre Dame on the Left Bank but others with a more secular calling
flock to nearby Shakespeare and Company, the famed English bookshop.
City Lights displays an efficiency that renders its books upright and
ordered but the decor at Shakespeare and Company has the rambling
lucidity of an unkempt boudoir. Books vie for a vertical slot on the
shelves; wooden shelves take the weight of dusty outdated oeuvres of
long-forgotten authors and occasionally you see a cat curled up on cushions.
As in City Lights, the counter at Shakespeare and Company is piled
high with titles by authors who have featured in the shop's history.
The best known, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, arguably the
most important travel writer of the past century, is a memoir of his
days in Paris.
The first page is stamped authoritatively with the Shakespeare and
Company logo (a bookworm's souvenir of sorts) and on page 20 begins a
chapter dedicated to the shop. "In those days there was no money to
buy books," Hemingway writes. "I borrowed books from the rental
library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and
bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l'Odeon. On a cold windswept
street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter,
tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs
on the wall of famous writers both dead and living."
Beach, an American expatriate who made her name publishing James
Joyce's Ulysses, opened the original Shakespeare and Company in 1919.
Her bookshop provided a meeting place for the so-called Lost
Generation of American writers, such as Hemingway, who found
themselves in Paris between the wars.
The Nazis closed the shop in 1941 when, it is rumoured, Beach denied
a German officer the last copy of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. But it was
reinvented a decade later by another expatriate, the Bostonian George
Whitman, who called it Le Mistral. He later changed it back to
Shakespeare and Company, apparently at the behest of Beach.
Though Hemingway was writing about the original store, Whitman's
Shakespeare and Company, now run by his granddaughter, respectfully
named Sylvia Beach Whitman, could also be described thus. Under
Whitman's reign, almost 40,000 travellers, writers, poets and
eccentrics have bedded down among the books in exchange for shop
work, a short autobiography and a promise to read a book a day.
This is where the transatlantic stories coincide. Whitman was keeping
company in the '50s with Ferlinghetti, who was in Paris studying at
the Sorbonne. Later, in 1957, Whitman would meet other Beat writers
whose travelling tendencies had lured them to Paris.
"They were in and out of here nearly every day," Whitman recalls in
London's Observer magazine, "and they were some of the first to come
to my poetry readings."
As with the Lost Generation before them, the Beat Generation revelled
in Shakespeare and Company as a place to write and in Paris as a
source of inspiration. Their enthusiasm for this literary landmark -
with its tradition of subversive writing and publishing and its
history of outstanding writers and travellers - must have been, for
them, a continuation of a mood set in motion by Ferlinghetti's City
Lights store, which had opened in 1953. To this day the two bookshops
claim to be "sister" stores and Ferlinghetti and Whitman remain
Within a month of my Parisian visit I am back in San Francisco at
City Lights. I tug at the thin spine of another book, A Writer's San
Francisco by Eric Maisel, "whose affection and respect for the city",
according to the book's jacket, is "inspiring to all writers and
artists but also to anyone who has ever spent time in San Francisco
and fallen in love with her". I buy it.
City Lights is at Columbus Avenue, North Bridge, San Francisco. Open
10am until midnight. Phone +1 415 627 6963 or see http://www.citylights.com.
Shakespeare and Company is at 37 rue de la Bucherie, Latin Quarter,
Paris. Metro: Saint-Michel. Open noon until midnight. Phone + 33 (0)
1 43 25 40 93 or see www.shakespeareco.org.