It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I love bookstores. Combine that with the wannabe artist side of my personality, and I found the perfect place to visit in San Francisco.
I knew before my trip to San Francisco last week that I wanted to stop at the iconic City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin founded the bookstore in 1953 and began publishing in 1955. Both as a bookstore and as a publisher, City Lights have a reputation for intellectual inquiry and progressive politics.
In 1957 Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing and selling Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. This famous obscenity trial, which they won, was a landmark free-speech decision. Once synonymous with the Beat Generation writers of the 1950s like Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, City Lights has retained its anti-authoritarian attitude.
Behind the City Lights building is an alley that connects the North Beach and Chinatown neighborhoods. For years it was stinky, seedy and dangerous. Ferlinghetti was a force behind changing the name to Jack Kerouac Alley, but the cleanup didn’t happen until the Chinatown Alleyway Improvement Project to rebuild alleys in Chinatown.
Opened in 2007, cars and trucks are no longer allowed, the alley has been resurfaced and includes plaques inscribed with quotes from writers, including Jack Kerouac. The streetlights were replaced, and there is a mural covering the exterior back wall of City Lights.
I found the mural as interesting as the bookstore, especially after I did a little research. Painted in 1999, the mural is a reproduction of a mural, Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley, originally painted in the village of Taniperla in Chiapas, Mexico by artist Sergio Valdez Rubalcaba. It was painted on the headquarters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a group that fought for indigenous rights in the 1990s.
In 1998 Mexican Army troops occupied the village and destroyed property, including the mural. Rubalcaba was charged with rebellion for designing the mural and sentenced to nine years in prison, although he ultimately served one and a half years. Human rights workers searched globally for places willing to create reproductions of the mural to show solidarity with the indigenous people whose village was occupied and property destroyed. There are at least six other reproductions in three other countries.
The choice of mural for the back wall of City Lights makes clear that the bookstore maintains its counterculture attitude. That’s my kind of independent bookstore.