At the intersection of Columbus and Broadway in downtown San Francisco sits City Lights Books. Founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights Books is a historical landmark, a destination for book lovers from around the world, and a vibrant part of San Francisco’s literary community. Now in its sixtieth year, City Lights is doing better than ever: “We’ve had three of our best years ever in the last three years,” book buyer Paul Yamazaki told us over the phone last week.
Paul Yamazaki: Things are really good, so whatever troubles there are in the book business, there’s still so much good writing. As you see at Brick, there are emerging writers from all over the place. You’ve been around for what, thirty-five years? I’ve been around long enough to remember when the first issues of Brick came out.
Brick: You were reading Brick back in the day?
PY: Yes, that’s how we first got to know Michael [Ondaatje]’s name, because before he started doing volumes of poetry and novels, we knew him as an editor of this amazing thing that came out of Canada.
B: Could you tell us a little bit about City Lights Books?
PY: City Lights, like Brick, was founded by a writer, a poet, and it has remained a bookstore over its now more than sixty years still devoted and focused on what writers do, what independent publishers do, what editors do. I think one of the things that’s a hallmark of our tradecraft is that we pay a lot of attention to the editors, whether it’s a large house or an independent house. We pay attention to what they do because it’s so difficult for someone in a bookstore today to actually read all the texts before you make a decision on whether you’re going to stock the book in the store or not. So having the idea of what the tradition of the house is, what the curatorial taste of a particular editor is, that means so much to us. That’s how we’re able to continue to move forward. And I think the other thing that City Lights does is that we include all my twelve colleagues here at the bookstore in deciding how we bring in new titles as well as what we stock in backlist. I think that makes a huge difference for us. We’re still a store that really focuses a lot on backlist. Over seventy percent of our book sales are in backlist.
B: Who comes in to visit the store?
PY: Because of our history, because of Lawrence’s work, we see such a wide variety of people coming from different parts of the United States and different parts of the world. Nancy Peters, who was the former director of City Lights, called our community a community of ideas and a community of writing. We still have a strong relationship to our physical community, the community here that’s centred around Columbus and Broadway, where City Lights has been for its entire sixty years. But more important is that because of our staff, because of the people that we continue to bring in to work here, we maintain a strong connection to the writing and the publishing community. Lawrence doesn’t think of himself or the store as strictly Beat-related; he thinks of City Lights and all the writers that he’s worked with and published over the years as part of a long tradition of the literature of resistance and the literature of conscience, and that’s where we operate from, that initial impulse of Lawrence and Shig Murao, who was his business partner for many years. They were critical of things as they are. We think of literature as one of those planes of possibility. We look at art and we look at literature, specifically, and it gives us a concrete way to look at the future in a positive way.
B: Could you talk a little bit about why booksellers are necessary?
PY: I think in today’s world, because there is so much good writing out there—but also, as you know, the technology to print a book or to produce a book, whether it’s a book or a digital text, is relatively accessible now—I think the curatorial role of publishers and magazines such as Brick and our friends at various publishing houses, large and small, becomes very important. It makes this such a critical moment for how independent booksellers are able to, for different communities, for their particular reading communities, present what we like to think of as a coherent presentation, in City Lights’ case, of what we consider the best of contemporary writing and publishing practice. The thing about City Lights is because of our long history and because Lawrence really doesn’t want to have a sense of profits, what is possible for City Lights is that it continues to be sustainable and continues to be at its critical edge. We make as few concessions as possible to the commercial practice. The staff here and myself, we have the privilege of not having to stock whatever happens to be a bestseller. We will carry it if we think it’s a good book, but we don’t necessarily have to have it.
B: Do you have a favourite thing or a favourite place in the store?
PY: Yes, I do. I used to work the nightshifts here, and we used to close at two o’clock in the morning. Once a year, I’d do an annual computer thing, and I love the store after three o’clock. There’s this quietness. The bars are closed, and the streets go quiet. It’s quiet in the store and it’s quiet on the streets. I love the idea of wandering through the store that’s semi-darkened. I had this whole world of books to myself.
B: And now, you’ve already, very kindly, said a few things on this front, but would you mind telling us a bit more about what you think of Brick?
PY: Brick, to us, was one of those representations of the emergence of how we’re starting to see literature coming from so many different sensibilities and so many different parts of the world; Brick was one of those magazines that heralded and proclaimed that. Michael’s own practice is definitely a part of that, as a writer and as a poet. I’ve been around long enough to remember when people started bringing around those first issues of Brick and asked if we could carry it here at City Lights, and so, we have.