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Iconic San Francisco bookstore closed by coronavirus may never reopen

City Lights published the seminal poem "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg and became a gathering place for bohemians, but, like many small businesses, it is struggling.
Image: City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco.Google

A legendary San Francisco bookstore that gave voice to the Beat Generation may be forced to close its doors permanently as California's sweeping coronavirus response takes its toll on small businesses.

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers was closed March 16, around the same time Gov. Gavin Newsom directed all nonessential businesses shuttered to prevent the virus from spreading. Online orders aren't being processed, either, to try to protect employees, said longtime publisher and CEO Elaine Katzenberger, and as a result, no money is coming in.

On Thursday, Katzenberger launched a fundraising campaign to keep the business afloat. The money would go toward paying the full salaries and benefits of City Lights' 20 employees, she said.

"Our legacy looms large, but we're a small business like any other," Katzenberger said. "It just became obvious that we had to do it."

The GoFundMe campaign had raised nearly $60,000 of its $300,000 goal by Thursday evening.

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Founded in 1953 by two friends, college professor 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.

"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.

"Working at City Lights was a cultural education all the time, and it still is," she said.

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.

Katzenberger said she is both humbled and energized by the outpouring of support.

"The amount of people giving $5 and $10 is so moving," she said. "We've been around a long time, and people do care."

CORRECTION (April 10, 2020, 12:05 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the author of "Howl." He was Allen Ginsberg, not Ginsburg.