5 Questions for City Lights

John McMurtrie

City Lights, the San Francisco bookstore cherished the world over, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. Founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin as the first all-paperback bookstore in the country, the North Beach landmark today stocks a great variety of titles (no longer just paperbacks) on three floors.

Elaine Katzenberger, the publisher of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, has worked at the store since 1987. ZYZZYVA asked her to inaugurate our new weekly feature devoted to independent bookstores. She answered our questions from New York City, where she accepted the National Book Critics Circle’s Toni Morrison Achievement Award on behalf of its recipient, City Lights.

ZYZZYVA: What’s the coziest spot in your store for reading?
ELAINE KATZENBERGER: Well, there is definitely an argument to be made for the arched brick alcoves in our basement, an old architectural space so obviously filled with history—and when it’s not busy, a quiet place filled with an absolutely fantastic selection of nonfiction of every variety. It’s a wonderful place to get lost in a book. But I think the hands-down winner for most folks would be the poetry room, and particularly, a spell by the window in the Poet’s Chair, an old rocking chair that Lawrence brought into the store at some point. The poetry room is situated in the back of the building, with windows that open onto Kerouac Alley and a view onto nearby rooftops hung with clotheslines against a backdrop of tall downtown buildings. And depending on the time of day, the room is quiet and filled with sunlight, or it’s wrapped in twilight and in the sounds of folks in the alleyway having cocktails at Vesuvio’s outdoor spot; or it’s once again a quiet space, a warm yellow box in the sea of city lights that shine outside the darkened window. It’s absolutely magic, and I love that room at any time of day, like so many others do.

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Z: What’s a little-known fact about your store?
EK: It’s already been documented, but maybe folks might not know that the basement used to be a Christian revival hall, and that’s why there are still those visible remnants of that past on the basement walls and pillars that might seem like strange non sequiturs. For example, “Remember Lot’s Wife!” painted along one wall. And of course, “I Am the Door” …

Z: How would you describe the smell of your shop?
EK: Heavenly.

Z: Which new book would you recommend most to readers?
EK: There are too many new books coming into the store each week that merit a recommendation! So I’m going to defer from choosing among all of those and recommend a recent City Lights publication, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, by Mosab Abu Toha.

Z: Aside from your own, what’s your favorite bookstore?
EK: I’ve had the opportunity to visit so many beautiful bookstores in so many cities, and there are even more that I haven’t yet visited — it’s an impossible choice. But for now, I’ll say Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and Medicine for Nightmares in San Francisco. Two absolutely solid recommendations.

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