The poet who wrote their first poem at 30-something, or at five-and-a-half years old
The bookworm who has read every piece ever written by John Updike or Charles Bukowski
The lover of novels who carefully selects each book after meticulously weighing the options
The hoarder of paperback literature
The City Lights Bookstore is for people like us.
It was late January 2020, during the Chinese New Year festival. I pushed my shoulders through masses of people on the street in China Town San Francisco, winding between street vendors beneath red Chinese lanterns. Shouts and bartering could be heard along the buzzing sidewalk and filled street. My friends and boyfriend lagged behind, trying to find a way to push a stroller through throngs of children and street sellers.
We had driven into the city from one of the suburbs. My friend, sandwiched between myself and her daughter’s car seat, insisted I wanted to go to Ghiradelli Square. I did not. I can pass on Chocolate, but not on Chinese food or books. (I’m vaguely aware Ghiradelli Square is not made of chocolate.)
“Why do you want to go to China Town so much?” My friend’s husband said as we dipped into a tunnel.
“Nostalgia, I think﹘” I replied.
When I was 11 years old, my parents took my sisters and me to San Francisco. I’d begged them to take us to the “seedy part of town” but instead, they opted for China Town. We’d found a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant a few storefronts down from a meat market with hanging ducks, and we pointed to various things on the menu. I wore a necklace I made out of bottle caps and felt like I was at the pinnacle of what adults must feel on a daily basis. Cool. I felt cool.
“﹘but I also want to go to a bookstore,” I continued, “City Lights.”
Earlier in the week, I had sent a spreadsheet out to all the parties involved that listed the places I wanted to visit, and then we navigated the ones we could actually see while toting an 18-month child with us.
“A bookstore? You can get books anywhere,” my friend replied.
“You didn’t read my itinerary,” I said.
I proceeded to promise that this bookstore was different, and unleashed some facts that I don’t think anyone in the car cared about besides me.
City Lights Bookstore was a Bucket List place for me. Yes, more accessible than, say, swimming with manatees or walking through the caverns of Carlsbad, but just as important. It was founded in the fifties by Lawrence Ferlinghetti who envisioned the bookstore as a literary meeting place. The bookstore was the first all-paperback bookstore - the intent was for high-quality literature to be available to anyone at prices people could reasonably afford. On top of that, it was a publisher. It was monumental.
I mean, City Light is next to Jack Kerouac Alley for crying in the mud.
It was cemented we could go there because we’d skip over from China Town before dinner ﹘ it being only a block away from the Chinese New Year festival.
While I arrived at the bookstore with three friends, I entered the two-story building alone. It’s true; my friends stood outside chatting. I only hold it against them a little. I’m also a little glad though because I floated into it like an old memory.
My fear of looking like a tourist is strong, and I regret that. I wanted to step into the shop and take it all in, pause for a moment, look around. Instead, I do what I typically do: pretend I know exactly where I am going. Luckily for me, I wanted to be in all the parts of the store, so it didn’t matter where I ended up.
I sought the tall shelves for obscure books, pawing through the poetry books and translated novels. Wood shelves and vanilla musk pages wafted into my nose. The glow of the warm lights bathed over the millions of pages of coveted literature. I stepped beneath an archway into an inlet with large black and white tiles before slipping upstairs. In the tiny stairwell, I tried to hide my grin at the book walls. Home. I felt at home.
I exited with only one novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, but I’d slipped a piece of my soul as thin as parchment onto the shelves between two paperback poetry books. Forever it is there, watching lovers of literature pass through, thumbing through the books.
The man who had a dream to democratize American literature, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, passed away at the age of 101 in March. I have a sense of pride in knowing I was able to visit his dream while he still lived. The 19-year-old-version of me ﹘nose-deep into Charles Bukowski while sitting at a park bench at my Alma Mater﹘ is grateful for what he did.
Thank you Lawrence Ferlinghetti for your dream and your creation.