"There's this whole new 'Brooklyn is a writers' town' thing," says Katzenberger, "that idea of the friendly writers, the community of writers, that I think is a fairly new phenomenon there, whereas I think in San Francisco that's always been the deal, because it isn't New York, and people live differently here. But it's always been highly populated by writers, and I think there are a lot of writers who live here because of that." It can't only be tourists who roam the City Lights stacks until midnight.

Or, as Flavorwire observed recently, "McSweeney's is based out of San Francisco, far away from most of the big publishing houses of New York, and various universities across the country that have so much influence on what we read. In other words, they're outside the East Coast feedback loop, which gives them more freedom to do their own thing." Late last month, when McSweeney's publicity director Isaac Fitzgerald decamped for New York to become the books editor at BuzzFeed, publicly announcing his professional goal to accentuate the positive by not running negative reviews, The New Yorker chimed in: "It bears mentioning that Fitzgerald's views are very much in line with those of the San Francisco literary establishment whence he hails."

This, perhaps, suggests a West Coast feedback loop. Or that being a local publishing tent pole just means keeping spirits up — a fundamentally literary endeavor, after all. Cheerfulness seems at least somewhat useful in the face of potentially cataclysmic industry uncertainty.

"The crisis of the corporate publishing industry has created a lot of opportunities for smaller presses," says Graywolf Press editorial director Ethan Nosowsky, also a former McSweeney's staffer. "I think McSweeney's is doing exactly the right thing. You have to do multiple things successfully to be a good publisher these days. And they're publishing better books than they've ever published."

Of course, it is possible for extended tentacles to become overextended. In September, the lauded and much-loved quarterly food journal Lucky Peach, launched in publishing partnership with McSweeney's in 2011, announced plans to operate and publish independently as of its next issue, due in February. Though this separation may have been the plan all along, it can't be easy for McSweeney's to let go of Lucky Peach, and of the revenue it brought.

Sustainability, then, remains an open question, as usual. "As rents skyrocket, affordable homes for writers and cheap spaces for nonprofits become scarce," says Villalon. "You hope, like so many other San Franciscans, that your apartment building doesn't get Ellis'ed." (That is, removed by its owner from the rental market via the Ellis Act, thereby forcing all renters out.) "But work is still getting done, events are still being planned, even as it seems more and more unlikely you can be a working writer or a bookseller or a publisher in this beautiful city of ours.

"Like so many other San Franciscans whose paycheck isn't tied to an app or a private bus ride to the Peninsula," he says, "you wait to see what tomorrow brings and try to stay steadfast."

As an indicator of San Francisco cultural health, at least where literature is concerned, Graywolf's Nosowsky and Zyzzyva's Villalon also point to Litquake, the city's annual literary festival, which is only a year younger than McSweeney's and which this October recorded its highest attendance ever: more than 15,500, with more than 850 participating authors.

If any city can prove that the perceived opposition between literature and technology is a false conflict, it must be San Francisco. As Annie Wyman, an editor at McSweeney's, puts it: "Maybe at the end of the day you can't make as much money working in publishing and helping people of all ages as you can running a start-up, but who cares?"

Here it should be pointed out that the aforementioned McSweeney's iOS app, a free portal to no shortage of great material, is quite pleasant and literary and easy to enjoy. It also should be pointed out that the cover of the City Lights Fall/Winter 2010 catalog of forthcoming books featured side-by-side photos of a pile of used paperbacks and a pile of computer parts, including a smashed e-reader, above the caption "Paper or Plastic?" And that another of those Ferlinghetti-painted store signposts reads, "ABANDON ALL DESPAIR YE WHO ENTER HERE" — which also is the title of the City Lights blog.

When we think of a person at 15, we see a ratio of fertility to maturity so awkwardly disproportionate that it tends to make us a little uncomfortable. To anthropomorphize a publishing company like McSweeney's, therefore, is to make matters even weirder. In any case, it's a milestone. Other notable new 15-year-olds this year include the International Space Station and Google.

City Lights at 60, meanwhile, is old enough to be a museum for a bygone San Francisco. But our knowledge of the DNA double helix and REM sleep is also 60; though we take those for granted, too, we sure appreciate them.

Each of these venerated literary hubs may have started as a projection of the city's culture, or some ideal thereof, and each may have become a place of pilgrimage for out-of-towners, but neither remains merely a San Francisco institution anymore.

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Felipe Amarante
Felipe Amarante

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