Sunday, June 23, 2013

One of the holy sites of First Amendment history

For those who celebrate the freedom to publish (and read) – not to mention poetry, small businesses, and publishers who still actually read manuscripts – here's good news: City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco turns sixty today.
City Lights was founded in North Beach at 261 Columbus Avenue in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and his partner Peter D. Martin as the country’s first all-paperback bookstore. The concept behind the bookstore was to make ideas and literature cheaply available to all people. This idea was carried over two years later to City Lights Publishers, with their small, affordable Pocket Poets series.

City Lights became interwoven in the legacy of the Beat Generation, with Ferlinghetti publishing books by Allen Ginberg (Howl and Other Poems, Kaddish), Gregory Corso (Gasoline), Frank O’Hara (Lunch Poems), Jack Kerouac (Pomes All Sizes and Scattered Poems), Diane di Prima (Revolutionary Letters), Philip Lamantia (Selected Poems 1943-1966) and Anne Waldman (Fast Speaking Woman). Ferlinghetti also published English translations of writers such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Jacques Prévert. Its basement level has long featured an impressive stock of radical left-wing, progressive and revolutionary political literature.

It was the obscenity trial stemming from City Lights’ publication of Howl and Other Poems that earned the bookstore international attention in 1957. City Lights manager Shigeyoshi Murao was arrested for “disseminating obscene literature,” e.g., selling a copy of Howl and Other Poems to an undercover police officer and Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing the book. After a well publicized trial and support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti won the case. The book is still in print.
The trial drew national attention to both “Howl” and City Lights, and gave America the “redeeming social importance” test for allegedly obscene literature. And City Lights Bookstore is now officially a historic landmark in the city.

H/t to Ryan.

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