City Lights Books was founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin, editor of City Lights magazine, in 1953. It’s located at 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. The original pie-shaped store has been expanded to four times its original size over the years, first moving into the basement (originally used as a prayer meeting room) and then expanded on the ground level. It was conceived as a way to finance the rent for the second floor editorial offices of City Lights magazine. This eccentric, slope-floored store was supposedly America’s first all-paperback bookstore. From the start it was a meeting ground for artists and writers and featured books of literature, politics and popular culture. Today it is still a vital part of the San Francisco literary community. The magazines it carries run to New Left Review instead of Newsweek and the books include classics, religion, poetry and a very small section of health books sold under a sign that reads ‘Narcissism and Hypochondria.’
Peter Martin left for New York in 1954 and Shigeyoshi Murao was hired as manager. He eventually became a co-owner with Ferlinghetti. City Lights Books publishing house was launched by Ferlinghetti. Over the years, it has sometimes supported the bookshop, sometimes vice versa. The first book in its Pocket Poets Series, published in 1955, was Ferlinghetti’s ‘Pictures of the Gone World.’ The second was Kenneth Rexroth‘s translation, ‘Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile.’ Third was Kenneth Patchen’s ‘Poems of Humor and Protest.’ But it was the fourth book, Allen Ginsberg‘s ‘Howl and Other Poems,’ published in 1957, that brought the store true notoriety. The publishing arm still publishes ten to fifteen titles a year, usually fiction, poetry or essays.