Today was my last day in SF, and I started it in the best possible way: at City Lights. For the unfamiliar, CL is this year celebrating its 60th anniversary, and is perhaps most famous for first publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which CL founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who was also the book’s publisher and editor) and manager Shigeyoshi Murao were arrested over back in 1956 (“disseminating obscene literature” and all that). Today the store is home to a skillfully curated collection of books, plus an independent press that continues to put out great literature, poetry, memoirs and books on social and political issues. For a relatively small outfit with a relatively small staff, City Lights has a lot going on.
I discussed the store’s history at length today with CL chief buyer Paul Yamazaki, who I interviewed for Reuters but mostly wanted to take out for drinks so we could wile away the hours talking books and book nerdery. Paul’s the kind of guy who has way better things to do than chat with me about broad-strokes topics like The State of Reading Today, so his generosity with time was more than appreciated. Paul is also in many ways emblematic of the people I’ve met on this journey – both the bookstore owners I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing professionally, and those whose brains I’ve picked during off-the-cuff visits to their stores. In an industry financially dominated by a faceless mega-website, it’s so inspiring to meet people who live to evangelize the written word in person, and whose biggest challenge (outside of the old “so many books, so little time”) is finding and hiring employees whose infectious love of reading inspires repeat patronage in others. When I was 16, I would daydream about snagging a job in my local Barnes & Noble; only eleven years later am I realizing how much more incredible it would be to work in an independent store.
SO ANYWAY. Believe it or not, City Lights was actually the seventh, yes seventh bookstore I visited in the last two days. Saturday morning started with a trip to the Van Ness Avenue iteration of Books Inc., a local independent chain with several outfits in the city. From there I meandered down to Bibliohead Bookstore, a cute used bookstore with a bunch of first editions I had to resist spending $75 on. And from there I made my way to The Green Arcade, a pristine store with a funky design and a great variety of books. (While there, I had a lovely chat with owner Patrick Marks about the perils of auto-correct and the sweet purity of copy-editing by hand.) And then it was off to the Haight, where all that aforementioned pot-smoking I was wondering about appears to be going on. After a delicious brunch at Magnolia Gastropub, I checked out Bound Together, an anarchist bookstore on Haight Street whose selection of new and used books ranged from The Christian Delusion to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. From there it was on to The Booksmith, a purveyor of new books also on Haight Street, and then finally — after a pleasant walk through Golden Gate Park — to Green Apple Books, a fabulous three-story shop with a great selection, a helpful staff and a quirky layout that encourages prolonged browsing.
Having done this much legwork (and I mean that literally; my legs are crazy tired) you’d think I’d have just about tapped all SF has to offer by way of indie bookstores. But you’d be wrong. Felled by time management and the need to spend at least some of my hours here doing other things — eating, drinking, etc. — there are probably a half-dozen stores I didn’t get a chance to visit, including Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books on Valencia Street, Aardvark Books on Church Street, and Bolerium Books on Mission. San Fran basically out-booked me, which is just one of many reasons to pay a return visit someday.
So I will miss you Frisco: Your clanging trolleys and great weather and steep hills that at least give way to spectacular views. I see why so many people move here: It’s a city that makes you want to stop and smell the air, with an ethos that makes you want to tuck into a good book and a glass of wine on the outdoor patio of an old cafe. And the 10+ incredible independent bookstore options – well that’s just icing on the cake.
GABST DAYS 7 and 8 BY THE NUMBERS:
Books purchased: 8
A Thousand Cuts, by Simon Lelic (Books Inc.)
Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays, by George Orwell (Bibliohead)
The Judgement of Paris, by Gore Vidal (Bibliohead)
Burr, by Gore Vidal (Green Arcade)
Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton (Bound Together)
Skipping Towards Gomorrah, by Dan Savage (Green Apple)
I’m a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson (Green Apple)
Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg (City Lights)