Alternative Bookstores

I wrote of my favorite bookstore in Los Angeles when I lived there in the ’60s, Papa Bach. I still have a bookmark from the store that I cherish but periodically misplace in some obscure book I never finished, but Papa Bach has not been around for many years. In 1994 a similar local alternative bookstore in the L. A. area was nearing the end and an article in the LA Times reported this in a rather poignant way. At least we still have City Lights and Gotham (although Gotham is much more literary and less avant-garde).

For our historical reference, here is the article about the Chatterton bookstore in its last days:

Don’t Write Chatterton’s Finale Yet : Landmarks: The bookstore may have fallen on hard times, but fans and employees refuse to give up.

At its zenith, it was dubbed many things: City Lights South, Papa Bach East. As alternative bookstores go, a veritable shower of supreme bohemian accolades. But of late, Chatterton’s Bookstore in Los Feliz rests precariously on its hard-earned laurels, cushioned only by its memories. Loyal customers have been polite enough to ignore the empty shelves, the scaled-down staff, the quiet deterioration. Community commentary is often succinct, rhetorical: “Seen Chatterton’s lately?” a waif in granny dress and monkey boots asks her dreadlocked lunch date over a pot of jasmine tea at the neighboring Onyx cafe.

In a neighborhood that in the early- to mid-’80s threatened to metamorphose into a scaled-down, west-of-the-Mississippi version of Greenwich Village–a string of cafes, restaurants, flower shops, a live theater space and movie house–Chatterton’s Bookstore sat at its heart.

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I saw those City Lights

What? Another bookstore? Well, not just another bookstore. If you roam around San Francisco, especially the North Beach area, you are probably well acquainted with the City Light Bookstore. If you are stuck in the fifties or otherwise enamored with the Beat writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, etc.) then you certainly know of the City Lights Bookstore. If you grow alfalfa in Nebraska, attend every High School football game on Saturday and drink Rolling Rock on special occasions, then you might not know the City Lights Bookstore and my little post will not be limited to preaching to the guys setting up for the AA meeting that follows.

The City Lights Bookstore was established by Beat poets and represents one of the most successful and unique bookstores in America, if not the world. But why should I blabber on when the history of City Lights is right there on their website.

Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights is one of the few truly great independent bookstores in the United States, a place where booklovers from across the country and around the world come to browse, read, and just soak in the ambiance of alternative culture’s only “Literary Landmark.” Although it has been more than fifty years since tour buses with passengers eager to sight “beatniks” began pulling up in front of City Lights, the Beats’ legacy of anti-authoritarian politics and insurgent thinking continues to be a strong influence in the store, most evident in the selection of titles.

The nation’s first all-paperback bookstore, City Lights has expanded several times over the years; we now offer three floors of both new-release hardcovers and quality paperbacks from all of the major publishing houses, along with an impressive range of titles from smaller, harder-to-find, specialty publishers. The store features an extensive and in-depth selection of poetry, fiction, translations, politics, history, philosophy, music, spirituality, and more, with a staff whose special book interests in many fields contribute to the hand-picked quality of what you see on the shelves.

The City Lights masthead says A Literary Meetingplace since 1953, and this concept includes publishing books as well as selling them. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with the now-famous Pocket Poets Series; since then the press has gone on to publish a wide range of titles, both poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, international and local authors. Today, City Lights has well over two hundred titles in print, with a dozen new titles being published each year. The press is known and respected for its commitment to innovative and progressive ideas, and its resistance to forces of conservatism and censorship. All City Lights Publications that are currently available are proudly featured in the bookstore and on this website as well.

With this bookstore-publisher combination, “it is as if,” says Ferlinghetti, “the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern.” City Lights has become world-famous, but it has retained an intimate, casual, anarchic charm. It’s a completely unique San Francisco experience, and a must for anyone who appreciates good books.

I would wander around the old one-story bookstore back in the mid-Sixties when I visited San Francisco several times a year, either for a football game at Cal, a need for some good “hippy” companionship, or my fix of Mort Saul. I, unfortunately, did not have a lot of money back then:  in fact, we would often catch the late bus from LA, sleep on the way up north, spend a wild day in town, and hit the sack on the way back to UCLA:  round-trip bus fare, no hotels, and you could afford crabs down on the wharf.

City Lights is more than just a bookstore: they publish a great deal of desirable but often less-mainstream fiction and non-fiction. I have received their newsletter for years and I understand they have a weblog now (if you’re founded in the fifties, technology takes time). Check them out online; subscribe to the newsletter; read the weblog. Barnes and Noble may have quantity but it is bookstores like City Lights that keeps B & N honest (Amazon jumped the shark long ago and is now officially hopeless).