Sunday, December 5, 2010

Those bookstores

Fond memories of smelly and ratty bookstores. They are gone in my city. And I bet comrade Tim has a story or two.

"A Book Lover’s San Francisco"


Gregory Dicum

December 1st, 2010

The New York Times

ON a balmy fall evening in the Mission District of San Francisco, hundreds of people spilled onto Valencia Street, where they chatted happily for a few minutes before pouring back into bookstores, cafes and theaters. It was a giddy, animated crowd, but most of all bookish — a collection of fans and believers, here to listen to the written word.

The occasion was an event called Litquake, which, over the course of nine days, would draw some 13,000 residents and visitors to readings by scores of authors, many of them — like Maxine Hong Kingston and Daniel Handler (a k a Lemony Snicket) — local celebrities. The “Lit Crawl” finale alone featured more than 400 readings at bars, laundromats and even the police station in a single evening.

Litquake is an annual event, but on almost any day or night in San Francisco, there is likely to be something for the literary-inclined — a poetry reading at a bar, a book swap in a cafe or a reading in the book-lined lobby of the Rex Hotel. This is a place, after all, where dozens of fiercely independent bookstores not only survive but thrive, thanks to a city of readers who seem to view books not only as a pleasure, but as a cause. For the out-of-towner, these one-and-only shops can be destinations in and of themselves.

Books, we are told, are a half-millennium-old technology on the cusp of being swept away forever. So a journey to San Francisco to immerse oneself in them might seem the cultural equivalent of going to visit the glaciers before they melt. But in San Francisco, the home of many of the very technologies that have drawn a bead on the book, visitors will find a living, historically rooted literary scene that, though it has surely heard the news of its own demise, isn’t buying it.

THE same quality that gave rise to the city’s proliferation of small bookstores — compact, walkable neighborhoods with a militant objection to chain stores — makes it easy for visitors to explore the city’s literary terrain. Though the center of gravity has moved around over the years — from the old Barbary Coast in the days of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce to North Beach during the Beat era to the Haight a decade later — today the scene is most visible in the Mission.

Valencia Street around 20th Street is an excellent place for a visitor to begin. A cluster of shops — 826 Valencia; Borderlands, a science fiction and fantasy bookstore and connected cafe; Modern Times, a bookstore collective; and the used-book store Dog Eared Books — is surrounded by cafes and bars that host regular literary events. It is a neighborhood in which one can see an author read one evening and spot him at the next table at a restaurant or cafe the following day.

One of those restaurants might be Osha Thai at 819 Valencia Street, a sleek neighborhood favorite, where, on a recent afternoon, I found myself perusing 826’s “San Francisco Literary Map” over moroheiya noodles with yellow curry. More than a map, it includes historical timelines and a slightly out-of-date list of bookstores and readings. In it, I could see that the Valencia cluster is only the most obvious part of the Mission literary scene.

Not far away, above a dubious shop selling remaindered paint, in an all but unmarked building at 2141 Mission Street, is a bell jar for an eclectic collection of booksellers. To enter, visitors must be buzzed in and follow a series of unpromising signs taped to the walls in the drab stairwells. My first stop was Libros Latinos, a crypt-quiet space filled with books imported from Latin America. Like the other bookstores in the building (which also includes Meyer Boswell, a shop that specializes in antiquarian law books, and Valhalla, which features novels in their first printing), Libros Latinos mostly sells to collectors and institutions, but is also open to anyone who can find it.

I proceeded to Bolerium, the anchor of the group. It is a cavern jammed with books and disordered papers concerning 20th-century radical politics. Groaning shelves of books produce the wonderful side effects of deadening all sound and scenting the air with the drowsy, musty perfume of old wood pulp — intangible features of the world we are losing.

John Durham, the owner, sat at a desk surrounded by piles of books. Bearded and a little shaggy, he seemed at one with his cluttered environment. An expert in his narrow field, Mr. Durham is the archetype of the bookstore obsessive. In response to a research need for a book I am working on, he drew my attention to “The Masses,” an early-20th-century radical monthly. He then pointed out a collection of lyric sheets, which featured songs with titles like “Albania, Our Beacon” and “Eternal Glory to JV Stalin.” “If you sing that one,” he said, “you have to make sure everyone knows you’re kidding.”

THE Mission may be San Francisco’s current book hub, but it isn’t the only neighborhood where you’ll find one-of-a-kind bookstores. If, for instance, you’re exploring Noe Valley, seek out Omnivore, a tiny, carefully curated shop that fulfills the food-mad city’s appetite for gastronomic literature. On Haight Street, Bound Together is a roughly 30-year-old anarchist collective, a closet of a shop crammed floor to ceiling with the heavy, serious literature of a parallel universe (among the shelves, near “Magic and Spirituality,” is one marked “Against Religion”). The Green Arcade, on Market Street at the edge of Hayes Valley, focuses on the more capitalism-friendly progressive genre of sustainability and eco-living.

Even the biggest used bookstore in the city, Green Apple, on Clement Street in the Richmond, maintains a distinctive feel thanks to staff members who know their way around the sprawling shop and around the world of books itself. “It’s not the kind of thing people could create from scratch these days,” said Pete Mulvilhill, one of the owners.

But if you don’t have weeks to investigate nooks and crannies, your next stop should probably be City Lights, in the heart of North Beach, the neighborhood associated with the Beat writers of the 1950s. City Lights is the grande dame of the city’s independent bookstores. Founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and artist, as the first all-paperback bookstore in the country, it made its name when it published Allen Ginsberg’s incendiary “Howl and Other Poems” in 1956. The matchless publicity of an enduringly influential obscenity trial made “Howl” a best seller and — improbably — part of the American literary canon. In the process, it turned City Lights into a top destination for literary-minded visitors to the city.

I went down to City Lights one gloriously sunny Saturday, strolling past strip joints and seedy bars; the neighborhood that popularized topless dancing in America thankfully retains some of its midcentury flavor. The bookstore was comfortably bustling as I walked between the tall shelves of political philosophy and gender studies and made my way up a narrow staircase leading to the Poetry Room. There, next to a window open to the Pacific breeze, I found a chair with a hand-lettered sign tacked to the wall behind it: “Have a Seat + Read a Book.”

I made for the Ginsberg shelf and, bypassing the new 50th-anniversary annotated edition of “Howl,” selected the slim original, still published in the same disarmingly bland cover.

Rather than sit there, I bought the book and went across the lane (Jack Kerouac Lane, to be precise) to the Vesuvio Cafe, a bar that was once a Beat hangout. Vesuvio is a cozy space of dark wood, tiled floors and stained glass, with framed photos of the neighborhood greats — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti — covering the walls. I ordered a shot and a beer, which seemed an apt Beat lunch, and went upstairs to the narrow mezzanine to read.

“Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!”

I paused for a sip of whiskey and looked out the window, down onto Jack Kerouac Lane, where a steady stream of well-scrubbed tourists stopped to pose next to a mural and read some of the more innocuous Beat verse that had been inlaid in the sidewalk.

A couple at a table behind me were discussing Neal Cassady’s role as connective tissue between the Beats and the Merry Pranksters. At a small table in the corner, light streaming in the open window next to him, a bearded, bespectacled man sat hunched over a book with the intensity of a monk, an empty glass and a stack of new books beside him.

Looking up, he announced that he was reading Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” in a single sitting. “I’m reading my way out of a breakup,” he explained. “I read books in cafes, then leave them behind when I’m done.”

This is literature as sustenance. And it is commonplace in San Francisco, where the average annual per capita expenditure on books is perennially among the highest in the nation. Same goes for booze — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, San Francisco is the only city that ranks in the top three for both (New York is ninth by both measures). Hence all the readings in bars.

Of course, many cities have vibrant literary atmospheres. New York, home to the likes of Gary Shteyngart and Richard Price, has a reputation as a professional’s town, where the presence of a huge publishing industry can sometimes make the act of writing seem like a blood sport. San Francisco, with its unapologetic nostalgia for — and its ongoing celebration of — the written word, is more laid-back. With its highly educated, young population, it is a city loaded with dreamers who can easily lose themselves in a novel or a poem, a place where people can talk for hours about writing without anyone ever asking who their agent is.

“There isn’t an enormous publishing and entertainment industry in San Francisco,” said Jack Boulware, a journalist and author who is one of Litquake’s founders. “If you’re a writer here, you aren’t bound by restrictions you might find in other cities; you can express yourself and innovate and experiment.”

“And,” he deadpanned, “everyone is stoned and sitting in cafes in the middle of the day.”

Yet the recent flourishing of the literary scene in San Francisco is not accidental. Much of it stems from a decade of work by local authors who wanted to carry on a legacy that includes Jack London’s smoking ruins, Dashiell Hammett’s dark alleys, Jack Kerouac’s dawn railroad yards, Amy Tan’s Chinatown, and Michelle Tea’s wild Valencia Street nights.

“Litquake came from a group of writers sitting in a bar realizing that we needed to do something,” said Mr. Boulware, the organizer of the festival, which had its 10th run this year. The same era saw the genesis of other San Francisco literary institutions, including the Grotto, a collective of mostly nonfiction writers including Po Brosnan and Ethan Watters, and 826 Valencia, a free writing school for kids (and pirate supply store) co-founded by the novelist Dave Eggers that now has branches in six other cities. These ideas were anachronistic from the start.

“We launched at the height of dot-com fever in San Francisco,” Mr. Boulware said. “If we were less inclined to be attached to literature, we would have started Web sites.”

Ten years on, events are so numerous that Charles Kruger, who blogs at, spent the summer attending 90 literary and artistic events in 90 days and blogging about it. Evan Karp, another newcomer to the scene, has quickly become a local literary gadfly. “I went to my first ever reading just a year ago,” he said. “On a whim, I started filming them and putting them on YouTube.” Since then he has recorded more than 1,800 author readings. “I realized there are all these little groups of really talented people,” Mr. Karp said, “but they didn’t really know each other.”

This social approach to literature makes locating the scene little more than a matter of finding the right Web sites. Though there is no single source, visitors starting with, or Mr. Karp’s will find themselves in the thick of things before long.

Each reading series has a distinctive flavor. Some, like those hosted by the online magazine The Rumpus, regularly pack bars even on Monday nights. I attended one, the Literary Death Match at the Elbo Room, a grungy Mission standby (get the pint-size margarita) where a panel of judges put a group of readers through an Iron Chef-like competition.

Before long, Alia Volz, the hostess, in bright red lipstick and a satiny evening gown, was spouting fake blood from her mouth to catcalls from the audience.

Bookswap, an event hosted by Booksmith, a beloved neighborhood store in Haight-Ashbury, is more studiously literary. Everyone brings a favorite book — I brought my copy of “Howl” — and in small groups moderated by the staff and guests (including, that evening, the novelist K. M. Soehnlein), participants talk books in a sort of literary show-and-tell.

It could have been dreadful (one young woman informed the group that “Ayn Rand has this awesome philosophy called Objectivism?”) but the enthusiasm of the participants and their well-read inclusiveness made the evening feel like speed dating meets book club.

“The longer you are in San Francisco, the more you realize it is just one big scene with a lot of different ways of making itself known,” said Mr. Soehnlein, whose own novels, like this year’s “Robin and Ruby,” live on the gay lit shelf. “In S.F. people ask more questions. In New York or L.A. it’s like crickets out there, even if they are very attentive. Do they think they’re too cool to ask questions?”

AT that point, crickets sounded appealing to me — I needed to find somewhere to put the finishing touches on the piece I was planning to read at Litquake. Though San Francisco is awash in cafes, not every cafe is suited to writing, or even reading. I found the Borderlands cafe in the Mission to be among the best — there’s no Wi-Fi and no music, and the place is furnished with couches and work-friendly tables.

But for hours of serious reading or writing, nothing beats the Mechanics Institute Library, on Post Street at the edge of the Financial District. The private library — founded in 1854, it’s the oldest library on the West Coast — is a little-known gem. The nine-story building houses a collection of 160,000 volumes in Gilded Age splendor. Marble, oak and cast iron lend a cozy feel to the reading rooms and a top-floor chess room. I bought a day pass and settled into a desk by a window, quickly falling into another world.

The Hotel Rex is not far from the Mechanics Institute Library, so I stopped in for a drink. There was no reading taking place, but a string quartet from the Golden Gate Philharmonic, a nonprofit youth orchestra, was playing in the spacious but cozy bar. Shelves along the walls held books signed by authors who had stayed there.

Later, after my reading, I was part of the Litquake throng lingering in the fresh night air. I wandered around the corner to the Fabric8 gallery, where I heard Matt Hart reading his poem “Minerva System.” It was a “sonnet of sonnets,” and Mr. Hart read furiously, rocking back and forth, his face red. Members of the audience, sitting on the floor or leaning against the wall, nodded their heads to the iambic pentameter. Mr. Hart’s dense imagery jumped around, a restless, slippery dream, an indictment of the now.

“She may be a monster,” he half-mumbled and half-yelled, ”but I love her!”

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