America's first all-paperback bookstore, City Lights still stays open until midnight every day. Undeniably, it's a community hub. It's also a publishing company, partly supported by a nonprofit foundation. Through a combination of high visibility, Beat nostalgia, general alignment with so-called "Bay Area values," and inviting fortitude, it has endured across decades and 200 published books.

Across the street in one direction, the swaying tranquility of a live seven-piece band of traditional Chinese instruments; in the other, the greasy throb of live blues. A few wayfarers, visitors from another country, stopped to take in the scene, which also included City Lights' Beat history window display. Someone hoisted an iPhone and snapped a few photos. Who wants to come here, and who can afford to, has varied over the years. But there is always a scene on Columbus Avenue. It's just one of those avenues. Certainly City Lights is a big part of the reason why.


City Lights too had a milestone anniversary in 2013: 60 years as a bookstore. (The publishing company began in 1955, two years after the store opened.)

To celebrate, the store had an open house this past summer. "It was fantastic, it was very affirming in all kinds of ways," says editor Elaine Katzenberger, who took over from Nancy Peters as City Lights' executive director in 2007. "I would love to continue to build on that. To really make the place feel available, and make you see that this is the future."

Short fiction writer Ben Jahn signs books at McSweeney's.
Josh Edelson
Short fiction writer Ben Jahn signs books at McSweeney's.
McSweeney's executive editor Jordan Bass in his office.
Evan DuCharme
McSweeney's executive editor Jordan Bass in his office.

The future? Is it dangerous for someone who makes books to be talking about that? Katzenberger remembers what she calls "my dark night of the soul" regarding the onset of electronic publishing through e-books. "I thought, God, what timing. I get to do this job now? I get to preside over the end? And then it's like, no, I don't want to. There is no way I'm going to martyr myself for this. And I came out the other side," she says.

"I'm not saying the big questions are answered, like: Does a bookstore like City Lights still fit into the landscape of San Francisco after a while? And not just as some funny artifact, which is not what I'm interested in. Well, I don't know."

She agrees with the in-house notion that City Lights can't just become a museum of bookselling. Probably it couldn't do that even if it tried. Maybe at 60, City Lights is what McSweeney's seems fated to become: a tent pole of the San Francisco literary community. While neither company presumes stewardship of the Bay Area's literary voice, both bear the innate responsibility that comes with a famous reputation. "I would at least hope that it's one of those crazy Cirque du Soleil types of tents," Katzenberger says, "where there are many poles, and maybe some are higher, but what really matters is that there's all kinds of great stuff going on inside the tent."

This presents the question of how many people share this view of what really matters. At a time when, arguably, the creation and curation of literature no longer seems like an apex of cultural innovation, and in a city whose development seems much more attuned to the development of technology, can that tent even stay up?


"How dare we be standing around, talking about nothing," Eggers once wrote, "not running in one huge mass of people, running at something, something huge, knocking it over?" You might detect within these sentiments some subconscious ancestral yearning for Ginsberg's "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."

In the early years of City Lights, that vision could be socially threatening. In the early years of McSweeney's, it had become a kind of American dream, or at least a San Francisco one. Complacency had become the thing to think of as obscene. So while Ginsberg "saw the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," Eggers saw the best minds of his generation published in the journal he created, and in its daily humor site, and in other periodicals, and in more and more books.

Although founded in New York, McSweeney's began with a San Francisco-suited mentality, as a sort of literary Salon des Refuses, publishing work that had been rejected from other periodicals. From there, it bloomed. In the words of former staffer Oscar Villalon, now the editor of the proudly West-Coast-centric Zyzzyva magazine, "McSweeney's came at a time when this entire city was in flux — I'm thinking of the first dot-com boom — and brought it with it an energy, perhaps even an urgency, that ravished a lot of us young (and I'm guessing older) San Franciscans," he says. "I think the city has always been about possibilities, about great expectations, and McSweeney's embodied that. Its rejuvenating effects on our literary culture can't be overstated."

By now it would not be entirely unreasonable to suppose the McSweeney's office a steaming cauldron of mirth, staffed by unicorns whose poop smells like roses. It is not. The staffers (all human) tend to have been McSweeney's fans before becoming employees, which in several cases first meant working as unpaid interns. Not many of them necessarily have put in many years with the company, which has regular turnover, although Executive Editor Jordan Bass has been there since 2005. "We feel very much a part of this city," Bass says. "Our writers are pulled from all over the world, but this really is where the company has grown up."

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Felipe Amarante
Felipe Amarante

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