A City of Two Tales: City Lights and McSweeney's Continue to Find Room on the Shelf

This was the scene on Valencia Street on a recent Sunday: The sun was out. The air was mild. A temperate November day, of the sort that reminds you you're on the West Coast. But not in Seattle. Not in L.A. San Francisco — the Mission, to be exact. On this day, there was some activity at McSweeney's, the publishing company founded by Dave Eggers.

Now, it seems a little silly, in a San Francisco newspaper, to say “the publishing company founded by Dave Eggers,” as if anyone reading this could possibly be asking, “What's McSweeney's?” If anything, they'd be more likely to ask that question as a hostile joke, a protest of the company's “continuing efforts to extend a tentacle into every cranny of human experience,” to use its own drolly and shrewdly self-conscious language. (That particular clause comes from the McSweeney's iOS app.) Drolly and shrewdly self-conscious language, of course, was a thing from the beginning. Remember when Eggers wrote a meta-memoir self-consciously called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, whose prefatory acknowledgments section included the proviso that “while the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality”? Of course you do. Well, even though Eggers' newest book is called The Circle, and it's about, among other things, how Internet culture has so weirdly turned self-consciousness inside out, he's come a long way, and so has McSweeney's.

During normal business hours, the front of McSweeney's office is home to Scholar Match, daily putting into practice the great Eggersian idea to crowdsource college scholarships. But on this day it had been reconfigured as an improvised retail space, a pop-up bookshop. The resident McSweeneyans, in T-shirts identifying them as such, were young and skinny and fresh-faced, sincere, gently solicitous. Customers studied their offerings intently, as McSweeney's books, being also visually rich art objects, tend to invite special scrutiny, and even the vaguely predatory gaze of the collector. McSweeney's books tend to be written by authors whose names you know, or should, and to exude a brainy kind of cool. Be they funny, or sincere, the publications — including periodicals, like The Believer magazine and more esoteric fare like the “DVD magazine” Wholphin — tend to reflect an aura of intelligent virtue, of good-humored engagement with the whole wide world. Anyway, the store was down to the last copy of Lemony Snicket's Christmas story, The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. The variously autographed Best Of McSweeney's, a handsome hefty new tome of 624 pages, had all been sold, but on the sidewalk just outside the door, a woman sat in a chair reading from it aloud.

This week, the company celebrates its 15th anniversary with a party Dec. 14 at Swedish American Hall. As a way of ramping up to this event, McSweeney's also has launched “the most successful crowdfunding campaign of all time. Maybe. Percentage-wise.” The goal was to raise $15. As of this writing, with less than a week to go in the campaign, the goal had been exceeded by 144,733 percent.

And isn't that just like McSweeney's? Still precocious after all these years, but (remember the college scholarships?) the Eggers empire has been nothing if not generous. McSweeney's may help shape the culture of the Valencia corridor, but it remains at heart a small independent publisher. Of books. Which is not an easy thing to be today. They have some resources, but not others. Your support does help. Pledge $5,000, they'll put out a children's book, surely an intelligent and adorable and beautiful one, starring your own kids.

Across the street, children frolicked in the Mission Pool playground. A tour group of some kind had amassed and was hanging around outside the gallery window at building No. 826, which is home to a McSweeney's-affiliated nonprofit tutoring center and writing workshop, and also a pirate store, in which lavishly illustrated pirate-themed artworks were on this day displayed. 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's always a scene on Valencia Street. It's just one of those streets. Certainly McSweeney's is a big part of the reason why.

This was the scene on Columbus Avenue on a recent Sunday: The sun was out. The air was mild. A temperate November day, of the sort that reminds you you're on the West Coast. But not in Seattle. Not in L.A. San Francisco — North Beach, to be exact. Anyway, on this day, there was some activity at City Lights, the bookstore and publishing company co-founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

You know where this is going. No one around here ever asks, “What's City Lights?” Hell, what isn't City Lights? Remember when Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, in 1956, and then endured an obscenity trial on its behalf the following year, which also was the year Jack Kerouac's On the Road came out? Of course you do. Those books might well have provided your first notion of what San Francisco really means, even if you are a little embarrassed to admit it now. Well, the Beat legacy still is a part of the place, and Ferlinghetti still is around — mostly in the form of hand-painted, all-caps signage he's placed throughout the store. “WELCOME,” says one. “HAVE A SEAT AND READ A BOOK.” The shelves teemed with lovingly curated local and international literature.

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.) [page]

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.”

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.”

“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.

“Now we have something that transcends any kind of regionalism — or regional prejudice against us,” Katzenberger says of City Lights. “I think we're an international voice. Years ago we might have been dismissed as, 'Oh well, that's just a bunch of that Beatnik stuff.' It has been far more than that for a long time. McSweeney's has that too.”

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