Whenever I travel to San Francisco, one of my favorite cities in the world, I make sure to pay homage to the roots of my craft near the intersection of Columbus & Grant, where North Beach and Chinatown intersect.
It is a simple little tour, really: just three places. The first, City Lights Books, is a wonderful patchwork of angles, stories, perches, step-ups, cellars and basements loaded with books you may not find anywhere else. It is also home base to celebrated poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who spent the 1950s writing poetry collections, turning a half-dozen unknown writers into the famed San Francisco Renaissance crew (or West Coast Beats), and taking on the U.S. Supreme Court when they censored his publication of Henry Miller.
Now 95, Ferlinghetti is a hawk of a man, tall, imposing and imperious when crossed. He and my old friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, still read together once every October. Every time we write a page, article or book with anything we want to say, and then publish it, we’re reminded of who won that landmark censorship battle that culminated in 1961. It wasn’t the Supreme Court.
City Lights is my favorite bookstore, the bookstore that sparks me every time I walk through its doors. Now 60 years old, it is what an independent bookstore is all about — distinct character and personality, books carefully chosen by a well-read staff, a sanctuary of the written word, and the hub of a great writing community and movement. It is the best store to buy Beat literature in the world. Its selection of poetry, novels and literature reflects an open-minded, story-crafting, intelligence-promoting approach that is, well, the only approach that should ever matter in a society.
My favorite City Lights moment came in 2001. I walked into the store with Marty Balin, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame lead singer (and founder) of Jefferson Airplane, as well as Jefferson Starship. During their San Francisco concerts in the wild 1960s, bands used to ask poets to open their shows — celebrations of light, spoken word, dancing and music. Ferlinghetti was the Airplane’s designated poet on several occasions. As we walked inside, there was Ferlinghetti, perched in the checkout area. Marty and Ferlinghetti hadn’t seen each other in twenty years. Immediately, I felt like the luckiest fly on the wall as they caught up and discussed music, literature, and reminisced about those early concerts at Longshoreman’s Hall, the Matrix and The (original) Fillmore.
Across the street from City Lights is Vesuvio’s, the colorful two-story pub that served as Jack Kerouac’s watering hole during his trips to San Francisco. Hemingway had Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Henry James had the White House Tavern in New York City, and Kerouac had Vesuvio’s. He percolated large parts of On The Road, The Dharma Bums and other novels while sitting inside. Now, the place is lined with classic photos from the Beat generation, along with posters of Mae West, Janis Joplin, and other adornments that were part of the bar Kerouac knew. It looked like a few patrons and bottles of ancient booze on the shelves had never left, too.
After that, we took our haul of books a hundred yards to Vital Tea Leaf, located in the middle of Chinatown. (Gotta love the way ethnic neighborhoods run into each other in San Francisco, so effortlessly, without fences or borders.) Our old friend, the 83-year-old proprietor with a sailor’s tongue and a sage’s wisdom, greeted us with hugs at the door. We then spent the next 90 minutes tasting teas made of nectar and gold (so it seemed), and listening to him mix insightful history and preparation tips with playful poking at customers as they walked inside. I find Chinese tea opens up the creative pores in a way that makes verse and prose pour from mind, body and soul; it is always my chosen drink when writing. So, I loaded up with pu’erh, milk oolong, cloud mist and lapsang souchong (the smoky tea), heard our host’s stories about each (cloud mist grows at 8,000 feet, for example), and headed off to write a few of my own.
To me, Columbus & Grant is not only the junction of ancient and modern literature, or the crossroads of shih and Beat writing and poetry. It is also the shining beacon that reminds me of two endangered species — the independent bookstore and freedom of written expression. As we move into National Poetry Month, we’re reminded of the treasures men and women have written for thousands of years. And the inalienable right and freedom to do so. That’s worth honoring in the best way possible — by writing.