SF’s City Lights Bookstore, Home to the Beat Generation and Publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ Is On the Verge of Closing Due to Coronavirus

San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, the last remaining outpost of the legendary Beat Literary movement is on the verge of closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bookstore initially closed per city and California state guidelines on March 16.

Elaine Katzenberger, who is the Publisher and CEO of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers — both the store and its publishing arm — has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $300,000 that is needed to keep the business afloat. “City Lights is faced with formidable challenges at present: Our bookstore has been closed to the public since March 16, and must remain closed for an indefinite period of time,” Katzenberger wrote on April 9.
Founded in 1953 by Peter D. Martin and the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights became a cultural institution for San Francisco’s bohemians and literati. It was the nation’s first bookstore to exclusively sell paperbacks, many of which skewed toward progressive politics and modern literature.

In 1956, City Lights published the seminal poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, whose works defined the zeitgeist of what would later be called the Beat Generation. His collection of poetry unapologetically described drug use and sex. It was seized by customs officials and San Francisco police and became the subject of a lengthy obscenity trial.

NBC News reports,Howl & Other Poems, which became one of the most influential literary works ever published, is associated with such equally subversive titles as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Not coincidentally, City Lights is near Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. ‘Our role has been the same — we’re there to embody a set of ideals and a point of view,” Katzenberger said. “It’s a place for aspirations.'” Katzenberger started at City Lights 33 years ago. She had never imagined working at a bookstore, but she immediately fell in love with the store and its mission to disrupt political and social norms, she said. Katzenberger maintains a close friendship with Ferlinghetti, who celebrated his 101st birthday last month in San Francisco.

News of the store’s financial troubles rippled through social media. The best-selling author Neil Gaiman and the radio host Peter Sagal shared City Lights’ fundraising campaign and urged people to contribute if possible.