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Richard Reynolds

Shig Murao: The Enigmatic Soul of City Lights and the San Francisco Beat Scene

Shig Murao at Caffe Trieste (photo by Allen Ginsberg, courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust)

On October 3, 1957, a judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was not obscene. It was a decision that would pave the way for publication of works from Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, and others. A key  figure from the Howl trial was Shig Murao. His life and legacy has been documented in a website that launches today, www.shigmurao.org. This essay is adapted from a much longer biography with multiple supporting documents published on the website created by Richard Reynolds, a longtime friend of Murao’s.

Shig Murao was the clerk who on June 3, 1957, was arrested and jailed for selling an “obscene and indecent” book—Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems—to two undercover San Francisco cops at the City Lights Pocket Book Store. City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was subsequently booked and charged with publishing the book. While Shig is primarily remembered as the clerk who was arrested for selling Howl, he was much more than that. He managed City Lights for its first 22 years and crafted the unique atmosphere that made the legendary San Francisco bookstore into the institution it remains today.

Even so, Shig is in danger of being written out of the history of City Lights and of the San Francisco Beat era, too. (For instance, in the 2010 film about the obscenity trial resulting from the arrest, Shig was nowhere to be seen, even though he and Ferlinghetti were co-defendants and sat next to each other throughout the proceedings.) He was a close, life-long friend of Allen Ginsberg’s until the poet’s death in 1998. Whenever Ginsberg came to San Francisco, he would stay in Shig’s Grant Avenue apartment. And no one who frequented City Lights in the early years could miss Shig. When you walked into the store he would be on your left, a Coke can in hand, sitting on a high stool behind the book-piled counter. If he didn’t like you or suspected you had an agenda, he could be coldly dismissive. But once he knew and accepted you, he was warm, charming, and very funny.

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