261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, California 94133
Ron Fernandez

CITY LIGHTS bookstore is one of the great independent bookstores in America.  Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights became a “literary mecca” and printing press for the likes of authors like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other titans of the Beat Generation.  

Steven, my producing partner, and I stumbled in after a long night of filming at the legendary Oakland variety show Tourettes Without Regrets, with Hunny Bunny, the contortionist who heads up The Hot Toddies at the Skylark Bar. Inside we found hungover hipsters sipping mochas, and tourists milling around a banjo player they had brought in. 

City Lights Books Sign

The musician sported a handlebar moustache and was recounting in verse the lost days of the Barbary Coast, when a man would check into a sporting house and end up drugged and shanghaied onto one of the whaling vessels that would park in the harbor, and wake up on a boat heading for Guam, pulling the guts out of fish and carving scrimshaws of mermaids.  The clubs continued into the last century, when Sally Stanford and her Nob Hill establishment had a long run, and Sally even ran for office.

We took our time and wandered around three floors of amazing subjects from bios to American Literature, to Travel, to the History of San Francisco, California, and the West Coast. An Australian couple from Melbourne were wearing short shorts and it had just turned 40 degrees, one of those cold snaps that happen often in The Bay, and their skin was turning pink. People think “California” and they assume it is always 70 degrees, which is why they sell so many sweatshirts in the Wharf.

We took the stairs up to the poetry floor, where a Japanese couple were taking pictures with a bust of Gregory Corso. Many of the Beat Writers can be found here, from a world that Jack Kerouac captured so memorably in his wanderlust classic On The Road (1957).

City Lights Publishers specializes in poetry, and this location has been a popular place for readings, signings, and gatherings for over 60 years. You meet the kinds of friends you were always looking for.

CITY LIGHTS is a great place to pick up postcards, meet friends, drink coffee like the Beat Poets, and prepare to launch out for further explorations of San Francisco and the Bay Area. The place is packed with popular books as well as harder-to-find tomes, ‘zines, and curios, and they are open daily 10AM to Midnight.

Located at 261 Columbus AveCITY LIGHTS is positioned at the intersection of the Little Italy and Chinatown neighborhoods in San Francisco, which are fun to explore on foot. These ethnic communities have been part of the city’s charm and cultural diversity for many decades, and have fantastic restaurants and bakeries to explore.  

Around lunch time we checked out The Stinking Rose, a crazy Italian joint with large pasta dishes and a heavy emphasis on tasty garlic dishes. Our waiter Romeo sang the specials to us, and was like having Dean Martin bring us our meal.

We ended with a cannoli that brought the inevitable Godfather line from Romeo, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The Stinking Rose is just around the corner at 325 Columbus Ave.  We found the Italian coffee to be spectacular as well, and a good way to watch people stroll by recovering from too many gin and tonics.

Back to City Lights: Poetry isn’t just for college classes, but is the balm of love. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a charmer.  He was at the vanguard of important movements, and he remains a compelling voice today in this magical space.

Here is a sample of one of his poems. Maybe it will help you find a little luck in the boudoir…

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still four-leaf clovers
Is not our land still beautiful
Our fields not full of armed enemies
Our cities never bombed to oblivion
Never occupied by iron armies
speaking iron tongues
Are not our warriors still valiant
ready to defend us
Are not our senators still wearing fine togas
Are we not still a great people
Is this not still a free country
Are not our fields still ours
our gardens still full of flowers
our ships with full cargoes

Why then do some still fear
the barbarians are coming
coming coming
in their huddled masses
(What is that sound that fills the ear
drumming drumming?)

Is not Rome still Rome
Is not Los Angeles still Los Angeles
Are these really the last days of the Roman Empire

Is not beauty still beauty
And truth still truth
Are there not still poets
Are there not still lovers
Are there not still mothers
sisters and brothers
Is there not still a full moon
once a month

Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still stars at night
Can we not still see them
in bowl of night
signalling to us
our so-called manifest destinies?

Try a little Beat Poetry next time you are trying to impress that special girl…

CITY LIGHTS Bookstore, San Francisco | Ron Fernandez