Nestled among the trattorias, strip clubs, and skyscrapers of San Francisco’s North Beach is City Lights Bookstore—not only a landmark to poetry, but also a battleground for the freedom of speech.
City Lights was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin as the nation's first all-paperback bookstore. In 1955, Ferlinghetti became the store’s sole owner and launched City Lights Publishers in order to present the work of the Beat poets, who were having difficulty finding a place for their writing with mainstream, East Coast publishers. Over the years, City Lights’s Pocket Poets Series introduced writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, and Jack Kerouac. Today, the press has over a hundred titles in print, with additional titles being published each year.
City Lights gained national recognition in 1956 when Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s groundbreaking Howl and Other Poems. Ferlinghetti was charged with obscenity over the poem’s graphic representations of sex and drugs, and a high-profile trial ensued. Ferlinghetti prevailed and Howl has since gone on to become one of the most popular poetry books in U.S. history, having sold nearly a million copies in its City Lights edition. The trial reinforced City Lights as a foundation for the Beat movement. In his book The Fall of America, Ginsberg described City Lights simply as "home."
In 2001 the store was named a local landmark by the city because of its "seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation, for stewarding and restoring City Lights Bookstore, for championing First Amendment protections, and for publishing and giving voice to writers and artists everywhere."
A few blocks from City Lights, at 3118 Fillmore Street, is the site where the watershed debut reading of "Howl" took place. Now an import store, it was once the Six Gallery, where on October 7, 1955, Kenneth Rexroth curated a legendary reading that featured Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia—all unknowns at the time. Ginsberg captivated the audience with a powerful reading of an early draft of the poem, after which Ferlinghetti immediately sent him a telegram that exclaimed "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?"—echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson's words to Walt Whitman.