By Angela Greco
Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti
March 24, 1919 – Feb 22, 2021
The impromptu evening gathering at Jack Kerouac Alley felt evocative of the fabled Beat events of yore: strangers, friends, and fellow poets congregated for readings, writings, conversation, and toasts.
This particular occasion was in remembrance of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, artist, founder, and owner of City Lights Booksellers and Publishing. On Feb. 22, he passed away at 101 years old; an age equally impressive as his legacy in the city.
Upon opening his landmark City Lights Bookstore in North Beach in 1953, he headed a literary movement along with other names like Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg, and Herbert Huncke. Because of his active presence, the literary community and the world of arts and activism will forever be changed.
Ferlinghetti’s CV was legendary. Aside from opening the country’s first paperback bookstore, he won numerous literary awards and was once named Poet Laureate of San Francisco. He wrote more than 30 books of poetry, eight plays, and three novels, including his latest, Little Boy, which was released on his 100th birthday. The street formerly known as Price Row was renamed Via Ferlinghetti in 1994, and the City of San Francisco declared his birthday an official holiday in 2019.
While recognized internationally, he is locally known as one of the first to stir a “literary renaissance” into the streets of the city while breathing life into many writers’ publishing careers. He was famously the first to publish Allen Ginsberg’s book, Howl and Other Poems, a provocative representation of an experimental lifestyle.
Like Ginsberg’s novel, City Lights represents an experience. It represents Ferlinghetti’s idea of community. Whether growing up in the city or relocating, the period of beat poetry was a time representative of change, of a non-traditional lifestyle, experimentation, alternate routes to communicate a political viewpoint. City Lights was a safe space to express those beliefs.
Having Ferlinghetti in the San Francisco community was unique. He used his voice to help keep the city humble. He believed in artists, small corner-store owners, mom and pop restaurant owners.
Director of Publicity and Marketing Stacey Lewis is grateful to have such a rewarding career with the bookstore. “That’s what’s so cool about City Lights – just its place in the larger scheme of American culture. And it’s really significant, whether it be literary, politically, socially.”
She explained how Ferlinghetti wanted the store to represent a “literary meeting place.” There were fliers if someone was looking for a ride, for a room, an apartment, for help with something. People used to receive their mail there.
She added that “it was building community. Sometimes you don’t talk about it, you do it. Actions speak louder than words.”
Being that North Beach has always been a popular tourist destination, it is no surprise that the bookstore, like so many other small businesses, has taken a hit during the pandemic. Yet, the underlying idea behind Ferlinghetti’s business model was built on a foundation of community and local support. As Lewis reminds me, “now more than ever we need the support of other people and other businesses.”
The bookstore has continued to serve as a safe place for those mourning the loss of Ferlinghetti, even as the ongoing pandemic has forced it to institute new measures to ensure the safety of its customers and staff. The adjacent Vesuvio Cafe, the historic Beat Generation watering hole, has partnered with Bulgara’s Rotisserie & Grill, making it easy for guests to stop into the bookstore before enjoying a drink and bite of food at a table in Jack Kerouac Alley.
I myself still vividly remember the first time I stepped into City Lights. There was a remarkably special feeling of being in the historical presence of so many others before me. Upstairs, I lost time admiring the shelves of Beatnik poets. I read the literary quotes underfoot in the adjacent alley before stopping into Vesuvio; both added bonuses to visiting the bookstore on Columbus Avenue.
Ferlinghetti was only an imaginary presence to me then, as he will continue to be nowadays as a San Francisco legend. Yet, his voice was very much alive to me on the pages of his poetry.
Like the bookstore he left behind, his work will undoubtedly continue to serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration for future generations.
City Lights is open every day from noon to 8 p.m.
https://youtu.be/l11MUjuK43M link to Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading his poem, “The World is a Beautiful Place”