City Lights Is Not A Bookstore

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Macworld Expo is now over. I have put myself into Recovery Mode, in which I get to lie perfectly still in my hotel bed without having to stand, run anywhere, speak to anybody, or listen to anybody speaking to me. The past few days have all been wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but after 96 hours of it I’m ready to recant anything negative I might have ever said about staying put and doing nothing.

(I’m trying hard to remember what it might have been. I believe my only complaint about entering a state of total inertia was “I can’t convince anybody to pay me to do it.”)

All week long, two phrases have motivated me to bust out of my hotel room despite my feeling absolutely birched and asking myself “Why am I leaving this bed, again?” If it was the morning, the argument-ending answer was “Because you’re a grownup and it’s your job.” In the evenings, it was “Because after you leave San Francisco and get home, you’ll have limitless opportunities to lie in bed and avoid contact with the Humans. Whereas you only get one or two chances a year to hang out with these friends.”

And so, I spent Saturday evening hanging out with my good pal Dave, whom I’ve known since junior high. And not with my mattress and pillows, which I’d barely been acquainted with since I checked in on Tuesday, but which I desperately wanted to get to know better. They seemed like decent folks with a lot to offer an exhausted journalist.

It was a fine trade: dinner in Chinatown followed by dessert in North Beach, two areas bustling with activity and things to see on a beautiful Saturday night. During the walk back to Dave’s car, we passed by the popular landmark shown above. On this site there once stood a famous bookstore known as “City Lights.” I don’t know when it finally went out of business. Sometime during the Ford Administration, I think. But it’s a fixture on the tourist circuit so the City took control of the property and chose to maintain City Lights’ traditional facade and front windows, and staff it with historical reenactors playing the part of bookstore staff, so that tourists could get a sense of what City Lights must have been like, back in the day.

Yeah, I know. They’re not fooling anybody. But it’s a good show for the out-of-towners.

I kind of enjoy mixing it up with historical reenactors. If you’re ever walking through City Hall Plaza during Boston’s three-day Fourth of July celebration and someone asks “Who is that idiot who keeps shouting ‘Lobsterbacks! Assassins!’ at those folks dressed as a regiment of British soldiers?” the answer is probably “Andy Ihnatko.”

So I stepped up to the “counter” and asked the “clerk” where I’d find books by P.G. Wodehouse.

It wasn’t an off-the-wall question. Sometimes Wodehouse is shelved in Comedy, sometimes in Fiction, and sometimes — most appropriately — his books are found in the Classics department.

The clerk searched the database. Yes, the computer was a historical anachronism for a 1960’s bookstore but I let it pass. Finding nothing in inventory, she called out to a fellow employee.

“Where’s do we keep the Wodehouse?” she asked him.

“We don’t have any.”

“We’re out of stock?”

“No, we just don’t carry him. Paul doesn’t like Wodehouse.”

He’d blown it, of course. That doesn’t happen in real bookstores, does it? The 20th century (19th century, actually) produced no greater or more important novelist than Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. You can argue that point. But do understand that if you’re arguing with anybody whose IQ higher than the square root of itself, then they’re just leading you on. They’re really trying to determine just how deep your intellectual ignorance actually goes, having just realized that this is in fact the only sort of intellectual depth of which you are even capable.

So the idea of any employee of a supposedly literary bookstore not liking Wodehouse is ridiculous. The idea of a bookstore banning Wodehouse instead of celebrating his genius and exploiting his enduring popularity is even less-believable. It’s like when the Confederate colonel at the battle reenactment spurs his rebels onward by shouting “Git ‘er dooooonnne!

I wasn’t there to make a scene or ruin the illusion for the other out-of-towners. So I merely bade my goodbyes in the fashion customary to the time period during which the actual City Lights Bookstore had been in operation (a foggy “Keep on truckin’!” followed by a quick query as to where one might purchase some cocaine tablets) and took my leave. I bet it was this fellow’s first day.

He was a terrific actor, anyway. For a moment — a moment — I actually believed that this “City Lights” was a real bookstore and that this “Paul” person (presumably Paul Yamazaki, a fictional character described on the “bookstore” site as “Chief Book-Buyer”) actually had chosen to run a bookstore in which the works of P.G. Wodehouse would never be sold.

I know: how silly of me. It’d never happen. It makes much more sense that City Lights isn’t a real bookstore.

I mean, I’m right either way. Either this is indeed a historical reenactment of what the “real” bookstore once looked like…or else City Lights Bookstore cannot in any way whatsoever be seriously thought of as a seller of literature. Tourist destination, sure. But bookstore? No way.

22 thoughts on “City Lights Is Not A Bookstore”

  1. A freakin’ Burger King? I wonder if Ferlinghetti is rolling over in his grave. What a shame, that was a great book store and “Paul” should be sent away, far away.

  2. I 100% agree that Wodehouse is a treasure – but you can get Wodehouse at practically any other bookstore, or from Amazon, or even for free from Project Gutenberg (and displayed beautifully on your iPhone in Eucalyptus – downloadable over 3G in seconds from wherever you may be).

    I’d argue that not having a certain author available is the flipside of having a curated, opinionated bookstore with History: even with three floors of books, they still have limited space, and have to decide whether to stock easily-available-anywhere-else Wodehouse, or more written-at-a-bar-nearby Beat poetry.

    Sure you can get Ginsberg’s collected marginalia from Amazon, too – but you’re not likely to know it even exists unless you wandered by it on the shelf.

  3. I’ve always thought of City Lights as the Soup Nazi of bookstores, ever since innocently wandering in and looking for books from different paths of thinking. The late Cathy Seipp also noted this phenomenon, even though I suppose it was earlier in the reenactment.

    Today’s radical is tomorrow’s reactionary, eh?

  4. Having worked at a privately-owned, somewhat eclectic bookstore in a past life, I can tell you that there are, indeed, times when the owner/buyer’s likes and dislikes manifest themselves on the shelves. However, “we don’t have any” is NEVER the correct answer to an inquiry. The correct answer is “we can get it for you in a day or so.”

  5. @Joel Clermont, start at the beginning with ‘The Man With Two Left Feet’ if you want the real genesis of Jeeves & Wooster, or “My Man Jeeves’
    There’s more to Wodehouse than Jeeves & Wooster though… Try the Blandings Castle series too

  6. Once upon a time, long, long before the chain stores and Amazon gobbled up the retail book market, there was a wonderful bookstore in West Los Angeles called Papa Bach — they stocked a lot of paperbacks, ya see… Their logo was a drawing of Johann Sebastian which looked a little like the Ihnatko rendering on this page.

    They had lots of comfortable chairs for browsing at leisure. They offered discounts to teachers and other slaves (their phrase). During the Vietnam era, they had free draft counseling. A *good* book store.

    One evening, I was browsing within earshot of the counter when a sweet young damsel came in and asked, “Do you have any Rod McKuen?” The clerk’s response: “No, I’m sorry. The owner has diabetes.”

    *That* was a bookstore!

  7. 1- I am surprised that Andy does not already have a full set of Wodehouse.
    2- Why would you go book-shopping in SF when home base is Boston? If you had arrived from Cambridge NEBRASKA, I can understand.
    3- You alrady have a Kindle, no? Why not save a tree?

  8. Andy, wonderful write-up! 3 floors of books and that level of censorship on classics? Whoa! I agree with George here, when he wondered why you were looking for a dead-tree tome.

    However, then I realized, perhaps this book clerk inquiry of yours is standard operating procedure when you are Andy Ihnatko. It is interesting to see how they categorize a favorite author; as comedy, classics, British, or just fiction, etc. A retail experience, which is easy to forget the touch & feel of HOW books are displayed in a BIG bookstore, when we browse books only ONE AT A TIME on Amazon.

    I live in a small town now, moved here from the Boston area, actually, where I worked for a small but interesting-ish book store, that is no more, in Harvard Square. (Reading International & Out of Town News) There are no bookstores, here, at all. There is a token thing that has books on a few shelves in the local mall, smaller than a shoe store. Also, a warehouse (small) with remainders & a few bestsellers, with no character or culture, whatever.

    And yes, the clerks are only as good as their database. Sigh.

  9. Andrew….that is the funniest thing I have read in a long time. I would assume they had “The Autobiography Of Lady Gaga” and the “Wit And Wisdom Of George Clooney” on hand.

  10. I know this was written in jest, but it still made me sigh. With the recent shuttering of both Cody’s and Stacy’s, the Bay Area is increasingly deprived of independent bookstores, and City Lights is a living reminder of an important part of San Francisco’s past. City Lights’ buyers (and the staff who book authors for readings and signings) have a very strong voice, and they make City Lights and exemplar of the kind of opinionated organization that Apple, to pick another example, is supposed to be. The staff are not afraid to make their preferences known, and that’s part of the store’s appeal. Also, City Lights is the kind of store that exists in big cities, where there is a cultural ecosystem that supports a wide variety of needs in a wide variety of ways. It’s not censorship when you can walk 10 or 12 blocks to the Borders in Union Square and find all the Wodehouse reprints you might want.

    @Richard, your comment also made me sigh, because it shows what a disservice Andy has done the store. You are actually highly unlikely to find pop culture detritus at City Lights. Looking at my bookshelves, here are some of the things I have bought there over the years: Misha Glenny’s A People’s Tragedy, about the inevitability and failure of the Communist takeover of Russia; The Assassin’s Cloak, an anthology of interesting entries from the diaries of notable figures of the 20th century; a book about the Surrealist word game Oulipo; Samuel R Delany’s Heavenly Breakfast, a memoir of living in a commune in San Francisco in the late 60s; Petr Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution, a history of the rise and fall of revolutionary thought in 18th Century France by one of history’s most famously idealistic anarchists; the screenplays for Hal Hartley’s films Simple Men and The Unbelievable Truth; poet Adrienne Rich’s feminist tract Of Woman Born; a beautiful new printing and translation of Rilke’s poetry (about as close to Lady Gaga as this list is going to get); Marjane Satrapi’s graphic-novel memoir of growing up in revolutionary Iran Persepolis; Victor Pelevin’s surreal post-Soviet Russian short story collection A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia; and a copy of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, perhaps one of the most famous unfinished works ever published.

    The only thing that ties these books together is that I didn’t go into City Lights planning to purchase them. It’s a browser’s heaven, and its strong curatorial voice is a big part of that. There are definitely ways in which City Lights is frozen in time (it is, among other things, a museum to the Beats), but its selection of poetry, world literature, graphic novels, science fiction, radical history, left-wing periodicals, art books, and new literature of interest is deep, if not broad. It has a definite leftist bent, but it’s not doctrinaire in the way that some of San Francisco’s more explicitly ideological bookstores; its focus isn’t universal, but it has a much broader focus than some of the other (great) special-purpose bookstores in San Francisco, such as William Stout (for architecture, photography and graphic design), Borderlands (for fantasy and science fiction) or Isotope (for comics).

    If it’s not obvious, I love books, I love bookstores, and I love City Lights. Now that Cody’s is gone, it’s the only bookstore I know of in San Francisco where I’m guaranteed to go in and come out with something I never would have guessed I’d want.

  11. @Hugh – re: “I wonder if Ferlinghetti is rolling over in his grave.”. Don’t think so, as I’m pretty sure he’s still alive and kicking. Well, at 90 years old maybe he doesn’t kick as often as he use to.

  12. If I were a pc fan, which I’m not, I would say that the lack of Wodehouse is a bookstore is about equal to the lack of an ecard slot in a mac notebook. Not everybody wants it, but it should be there just the same.

    I’m kind of interested in what Paul dislikes about Wodehouse. Do Wodehouse books not sell? Does he just not like humor? Was he attacked as a child by a prize sow? Do gentlemen’s gentlemen frighten him? Does he laugh like Honoria Glossup?

    I don’t miss brick & mortar bookstores much. It’s been so long since I browsed in one. Looked up P.G. Wodehouse in Amazon’s book section. There were 2,622 results. That’s a bookstore.

  13. I know it completely misses the point of your post, but next time you’re in Portland, I’ll take you to Powell’s — assuming you don’t mind a random fan you’ve neither met nor heard of taking you to the largest independent bookstore. The selection is amazing! Heck, the technology books even get their own annex, a separate building a few blocks over. (Although… now that I think about it, perhaps that is to isolate the nerds from the general population.) We Portlanders are quite proud of Powell’s. It is both a tourist destination *and* a fully-functioning bookstore, to say nothing of the cat.

  14. @George

    After many years of stumbling across new Wodehouse volumes, I have become convinced there is no such thing as having “a full set of Wodehouse.” Can’t be done.

    The number of books P. G. Wodehouse wrote cannot be expressed as a real number; it is, rather, equal to “one or two more than you have read so far.”

  15. Seattle’s public library has a woefully small selection of Wodehouse. I’ve read them all and want more. Thankfully, this post’s comments have assured me there’s more to be found.

    I’m off to go looking…

  16. A good friend upon visiting City Lights recently described it as “The Conservapedia of the Left.” and while City Lights is certainly under no obligation to stock acknowledged masterpieces of literature, they should be prepared to be perceived accurately as the sort of phony and pretentious would-be intellectuals who don’t think readers can make their own judgements about books. They choose instead to create a non threatening child-proof literary environment where nothing you could pick up would rock their ideological boat. Pretty silly coming from (quoting their website) “A literary meeting place … internationally known for its expert selection of books and for its commitment to free intellectual inquiry.” … apparently some restrictions apply.

  17. Have to agree with Mr Norvell on this one – go elsewhere for your Wodehouse. That there are still small opinionated bookstores in the age of online book supermarkets is a miracle, and this post does not show the usual Andy wit, only pretension and snark. The City Lights clerks are probably accustomed to wise ass tourists coming in and sneering. Wodehouse the best novelist? Right.

  18. Just started reading Wodehouse…I have missed much by not reading him. Classic Tales Podcast is reading Right Ho Jeeves and it is the very clever, I cannot wait to read or listen to more.
    Andy thanks for you pubic service of recommending Audiobooks on MBW, you are National Treasure.

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