City Lights Books

This past April, I checked off a bookstore from my “bookstore buck list” (a list I haven’t actually written down, but hey, there’s another post idea!). This was City Lights Books in San Fransisco, California.


This bookstore is known for being the hub of the beatniks of the 1950s, most famously Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In honor of my trip, I began reading On the Road because this was an era of literature I had never studied before. I’m sad to say that I never finished On the Road. I got about halfway through, came back from California, and promptly started picking up other books to read. The flights (and the waiting time in-between flights) were honestly the only reason I even got as far as I did. To me it got really old, really fast. I get that it’s an important book for literary reasons, and I did enjoy some of Kerouac’s prose, but nothing about the characters redeemed the fact that so little was happening in the plot. I got bored.

I guess that’s the bad news. The good news is that City Lights Books lived up to the expectation. It has 3 floors filled with books, the top floor dedicated just to poetry and the beatniks. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to peruse the top floor because there was an event going on – some author who knew and wrote about Ginsberg was doing a talk, and it happened to be the anniversary of Ginsberg’s death. Neat, right? So I popped my head in for a few minutes. The top floor was packed with people; there literally wasn’t room for anyone else, so people started to jam up the stairway. I think I stayed until just after the speaker took out an ancient, accordion-like instrument and played a single, sustained note for a solid 2 minutes as he asked the crowd to chant “ah” as a tribal send-off for Ginsberg. I am not making this up. It was weird. I left.

Back in the safety of the literary fiction section, it was clear that I didn’t belong on the third floor – the beatniks are apparently not my style; they are way too cool for me. At least I gave it a chance.

One of my favorite things about this bookstore are the posters and graffiti art around the place. It made me feel really hip and cool shopping for books there, even if I wasn’t cool enough for the beatnik section. Not only that, but the whole block where the store is located has literary touches: quotes on the sidewalks, murals, a flying book art installation. I ultimately picked up two books: The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph (one of the Staff Picks, with such an awesome title I couldn’t resist), and What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund (which I hope will be as mind-blowing as it appears).

All in all, what I learned from the experience is you really can’t force yourself to like something just because it’s “classic,” “significant,” or cool-sounding from the outside. I tried to like On The Road, and just couldn’t do it, just like I tried to sit stand through that crazy guy’s talk. But just because I’m not cool enough to be a fan of the beatniks doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a cool bookstore. It was a very cool bookstore.



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