The Lucky Tour: City Lights Bookstore

LuckyIntrepid former Algonquin intern David Bradley and his trusty sidekick, Lucky the Leprechaun, hit the road for a tour of (almost all) the coolest, hippest, greatest indie bookstores in the United States. Join us for the journey…

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s not everyday that you get to visit a classic like City Lights Books. Even though I’ve lived most my life in North Carolina, there are a few bookstores across the nation that CityLights5I’ve heard about for years. And one of the first stores I head about was City Lights. Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights was a haven for alternative-culture, Beat Generation authors back in the 50s, and even though it easily could have cashed in on its popularity and become a tourist attraction, City Lights has stayed true to its roots.

The store has undergone multiple expansions from its early days, growing from a paperback-only shop to carry hardcovers of all makes and models. Yet, up in the corner of the store’s top floor lies plenty of evidence of its Beat Culture past. The floor is dedicated to CityLights4poetry, but it also houses a collection of photographs and writings from the likes of Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and plenty of others. Basically, City Lights Bookstore takes all the best aspects of a literary museum and all the best aspects of an independent bookstore and whips them into a frothy blend of perfection. You never know if the classics are going to live up to their billing, but City Lights does that and more.

City Lights Book Buyer Paul Yamazaki sat down to answer the Algonquin Questionnaire.

When did City Lights Bookstore first open?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti teamed up with Paul D. Martin to open the store in 1953, so [we celebrated] our 60th birthday on August 29th.

What inspired the name City Lights?

CityLights2It came from the famous Charlie Chaplin movie in 1931. I once heard a rumor that, after Chaplin’s death, his estate tried to make a claim on the name, but I’ve never found out for sure.

What is the oddest book that you have at City Lights?

The oddest book I’ve read is I Hotel by Karen Yamashita. It’s actually a pretty recent book, just published in 2010. Very experimental and very good.

What is your favorite Algonquin title and your favorite summer read?

I would say that The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is the Algonquin book CityLights1that comes to mind. Evison is definitely an author to watch. My summer read has to be Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi.

Is there a staff cocktail of choice?

Probably not one that we could all agree on. But, if I was going to name a drink, my favorite is a dry gin martini with a hint of vermouth and two olives.

Is there an area of the store that customers are especially attracted to?

Our Beats section upstairs is definitely the biggest draw. Customers don’t necessarily head up there first, but they always seem to make it there eventually.


Next stop: Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif.

*Note: The Lucky Tour posts are not in real time. David and Lucky have returned from their travels with great tales and many, many books. Stay tuned for more road stories…

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