Independent bookstores have historically served as community landmarks and valuable resources throughout the world. The experience of shopping at a bookstore that is genuine, individualistic, and an asset to the local community cannot be matched by shopping at chain stores or online. Moreover, a book is no ordinary item to shop for. Whether it is a picture book for preschoolers, a fantasy series for dreamers, a biography for devoted fans, or a nonlinear peregrination for intrepid readers, a book has a singular ability to illuminate one’s intellect and imagination.
The United States is home to many notable bookstores. One of these is New York City’s Strand Book Store, which offers nearly twenty miles of new, used, and rare books as well as an array of literary and artistic proceedings spotlighting icons like Chuck Close and Salman Rushdie. Another is Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, which caters to the high-profile writers, professors, and visitors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and provides a cultivated reading series that has featured some of the most influential and renowned writers in history, including E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, stands as the world’s largest independent bookstore and fosters book groups and a wide range of events promoting up-and-coming authors as well as prominent public figures like Senator Bernie Sanders. And finally, City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, California, has become a celebrated historical landmark.
Highlight: City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers has established itself as a creative and intellectual landmark not only in San Francisco but also in the literary world as a whole. On their website, they describe their philosophy: “As the increasingly concentrated mass media and new information technologies change the way people live, work, and think, we believe that nurturing the ability to think critically, to discern truth, and to communicate knowledge is essential to a democratic society.” Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and college professor Peter D. Martin in 1953, City Lights became the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore and a center for the Beat movement.
City Lights has also served as a press, boasting nearly two hundred books in print to date. In the fall of 1956, City Lights released Allen Ginsberg’s legendary Howl and Other Poems with an introduction by William Carlos Williams. Frequented by literary icons such as Ginsberg and his fellow lettered insurgent Jack Kerouac, the bookstore transformed the neighborhood into an enclave for the Beats. The street right across from City Lights was officially named Jack Kerouac Alley and has been decorated with lively, intricate murals and words of poetry.
Today, City Lights Booksellers & Publishers remains a hub for literary fans of all kinds, publishing everything from poetry to translations, politics to philosophy, music to spirituality. It still specializes in promoting the writers published by its independent press, as well as writing from the Beat movement that is difficult to find anywhere else. The store boasts rare, first-edition titles such as Love Is No Stone on the Moon by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and From Nicaragua with Love by Ernesto Cardenal. In 2001, the city of San Francisco designated City Lights an official historical landmark. It was the first business to receive this designation, which is usually reserved for buildings. As its website states, City Lights continues to publish “cutting-edge fiction, poetry, memoirs, literary translations, and books on vital social and political issues.” City Lights has also formed its own nonprofit foundation promoting “the goal of advancing deep literacy, which is not only the ability to read and write but fluency in the knowledge and skills that enable us to consciously shape our lives and the life of our community.”
The importance of City Lights has persisted in revolutionary intellectual culture, and it remains a beacon to independent bookstores across the globe.