I've just returned from that exquisitely literary city, San Francisco, where I quickly made my pilgrammage to the Beat cathedral, City Lights Books, in a racy North Beach area. My son accompanied me, and I proudly showed him Jack Kerouac Alley next to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's book-jammed spot. Seeing Saint Jack's sign and standing in the soft West Coast light, I felt a momentary wash of emotion, a mourning for the lost days of freedom and hope that Kerouac captured.
Inside, my son was amused by the sections devoted to radical politics and writing. I found a book on Jimmy Rodgers, the old Mississippi singing brakeman, surprised that my interest in old roots music would be met by City Lights, which I place in another literary/intellectual/artistic realm than country and western. Goes to show the universality of the City Lights collection, quite an anachronism these days, but quite common at independent bookstores back 30 years ago.
City Lights is also an excellent press; and I purchased a nice City Lights poetry anthology. After making my purchases, I saw a new book by the great guitarist Ry Cooder, a short story collection called "Los Angeles Stories," published by City Lights, but didn't buy it right then. Later, at another bookstore, this one located on Second Street downtown, I did buy it to take home with me.
With all of its tomes on anarchism, socialism and the like, City Lights is a capitalist place. I pointed out to my son a book on type and fonts that I had read, checking it out of the library, and he, a type wonk, decided to buy it, then complained over and over about its $30 cost.
My son wasn't impressed when we returned outside and I pointed out to him the nearby Hungry I, once the center of the cutting edge standup comics like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. I was happy to see the old spot, assuming that it still gives a forum for comedians, poets and musicians. A few days later, we happened on a cool spot called Melt, where we listed to jazz for several hours from two different bands, the first a trio and the second a packed tightly together group with piano, bass, sax, guitar, two drummers, and a guy playing trumpet and French horn. Each group had a musician playing standup bass, a wonderful instrument.
The spirit of Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade floated in the cool bay breeze when I sat at a sidewalk spot drinking coffee and saw a sign above a storefront advising that here was the office of a private eye. Our companion, a resident of the neighborhood, said the P.I. had left a few years ago, but in my mind I was already forming the detective novel about the place. San Francisco is one of those magical places that inspires writing.