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February 26, 2021

For years, anyone passing by City Lights in San Francisco could have looked up at the bookstore and spotted the words “OPEN DOOR.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti had painted them in broad, black brushstrokes on paper that was taped to a window in his second-story office, to the left of his old rolltop desk. They were two simple words, but they expressed so much about Ferlinghetti, the poet and co-founder of City Lights who died on February 22, one month before his 102nd birthday.

Ferlinghetti was an unfailingly generous man with an open heart and open mind. When he founded City Lights in 1953 with the late Peter D. Martin, Ferlinghetti was looking to create a “locus for the literary community,” as he told me in a 2018 interview. Ferlinghetti was a citizen of the world, a cultivated man whose honors included being named Commandeur in the French Order of Arts and Letters. He spoke French and Italian fluently—his accent in each language was impeccable—and he loved to travel and meet other writers in other countries, breaking down barriers. But he wore his learning lightly. He was affable and earthy and laughed easily and heartily—in no way was he a sophisticate with airs. He wanted to make literature accessible, a part of everyone’s daily lives, not a privilege that was reserved for a select few in academia. This attitude reflected Ferlinghetti’s hardscrabble upbringing: an orphan who was born during the 1918-1919 pandemic, he grew up enthralled by books at his local library in Bronxville, N.Y. Serving in the Navy during World War II, he spent free moments on a subchaser reading James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. And for his doctoral thesis in comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, he wrote in the back of the Café Mabillon on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

In its early days, City Lights sold only paperbacks—they were affordable and could be easily tucked away and carried around town. The small independent store in North Beach soon launched its own publishing arm. In publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956, Ferlinghetti knew that he would stir controversy; he was eager to challenge puritanical dictates that banned books deemed to be obscene. It worked: Ferlinghetti won the infamous ensuing trial in which he was accused, and City Lights, a wedge-shaped building that points toward Columbus Avenue like the prow of a determined ship, became a haven for free thinkers—bohemians and Beats and radicals the world over. 


All are welcome at City Lights, and late into the night. Before the pandemic struck, the store closed at midnight. For decades, animated literary events have drawn overflow crowds on the store’s ground floor and second-story poetry room (let’s pause here to celebrate a bookstore that has a poetry room). Sweaty patrons lined the stairs, listening intently. They would then spill out onto the street, continuing lively conversations on the sidewalk out front before moving the action to a nearby Chinese restaurant or over drinks and cigarettes and games of pool in the back room of Tosca, across the street. Perhaps inspired by Shakespeare and Company, the Paris bookstore and City Lights sister shop that has a history of putting up visitors, City Lights at one point had a bed in its offices on which writers could crash. How many of its old floorboards, I wonder, were made creaky by Charles Bukowski or Jack Kerouac?

Ferlinghetti’s generosity of spirit and his humanism come through in his poems, including, of course, his hugely popular 1958 book A Coney Island of the Mind, which has sold more than a million copies, an astounding figure for a poetry collection. His poems are full of passion and were written to appeal to all; they’re rhapsodic (“I am perpetually awaiting / a rebirth of wonder”), funny (“I didn’t get much sleep last night / thinking about underwear”), and confront his mortality with surreal bemusement (“For years I never thought of death. / Now the breath / of the eternal harlequin / makes me look up / as if a defrocked Someone were there / who might make me into an angel / playing piano on a riverboat.”). As a publisher, City Lights became famous for releasing Howl, but the small press has championed the work of hundreds of other authors, some famous, many not. All embody City Light’s mission to be an activist publisher not afraid to spread the gospel of revolutionary voices who would be turned away by many other houses. It has published work by established authors (Angela Davis, Sam Shepard), diverse newcomers (Tongo Eisen-Martin, Chinaka Hodge), and foreigners (Gabriela Alemán of Ecuador, Hassan Daoud of Lebanon).


Ferlinghetti was also known for his kindness toward co-workers. He hired Paul Yamazaki after learning that Yamazaki had been jailed for protesting the Vietnam War. Ferlinghetti himself became a pacifist when seeing the destruction of Nagasaki during World War II. Last year, Yamazaki celebrated his 50th anniversary with City Lights. Ferlinghetti also provided guidance to Elaine Katzenberger, who decades ago worked at Vesuvio, the bar across the alley, before joining City Lights’ editorial staff. She is now City Lights’ publisher. And when Stacey Lewis, the store’s director of publicity, had a son, she named him Lawrence.

Ferlinghetti’s personality was infectious. He was self-deprecating and solicitous, teasing, and forever amused. His lightheartedness emerged when I interviewed him at his rent-controlled, walk-up apartment in North Beach shortly before he turned 99. For a reading of a poem, he fetched his trusty Statue of Liberty mask, putting it on for an ironic, gravelly voiced performance. That afternoon, before saying goodbye, Ferlinghetti left me with an Italian proverb, shared with a comic’s timing. “Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto,” he said. (“Eat well, laugh often, love a lot.”) Laughing, he added, “And don’t screw up.”


When I spoke with him by phone, Ferlinghetti was invariably gracious and cheery. In 2016, he was thrilled that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, praising the singer/songwriter: “He really deserves the Nobel Prize because his poetry has reached more people than any written poet of his generation—of all generations.” He also remembered encountering Dylan at New Directions Publishing in New York. Ferlinghetti was by then already famous—the press had published A Coney Island of the Mind. “I was just leaving the office,” Ferlinghetti told me, “and Bob Dylan was hanging out in the lobby with his guitar. He mumbled something about ‘How do you get upstairs?’ He might have been hanging around there for days. He was totally unknown at that point, and he considered himself a poet before he was a singer.”

Aside from his concerns about San Francisco becoming a playground for tech millionaires and billionaires, I recall Ferlinghetti being most troubled when discussing Donald Trump, a man he viewed as a threat to democracy—a point he made in his short poem “Trump’s Trojan Horse.”

Ferlinghetti hadn’t been to City Lights in recent years. He was less agile, as happens to people who have been alive for a century, but he was remarkably quick-witted. When I called him last year for an appreciation I was writing on Michael McClure, the Beat poet who had died at age 87, he joked, “He was so good-looking, he should have been a movie star instead of a poet.”


Although Ferlinghetti hadn’t visited his venerable bookstore in some time, he told me, “I’m there in spirit all the time.” Any visitor to the shop could sense his spirit. The last event I took part in at City Lights was in the fall of 2019, when I interviewed Daniel Handler about his novel Bottle Grove. Given that a bar is at the center of the book, Peter Maravelis, City Lights’ events director (a true impresario), made the evening more of a party, playing Pérez Prado records and distributing free cocktails he made. It was an event that Ferlinghetti, with his bubbly personality, would have approved of—it was fun and loose, and the patrons who attended were equal participants rather than passive observers.


One can feel Ferlinghetti’s presence at City Lights in many other ways. Photos of the poet grace the store’s walls, as do his painted signs. “HAVE A SEAT + READ A BOOK,” reads one. “Printers’ ink is the greater explosive,” reads another. Banners hanging from the roof of the store proclaim, “DEMOCRACY IS NOT A SPECTATOR SPORT.” Ferlinghetti’s books, too—poetry collections, fiction, travel writing, and essays—fill the shop’s shelves, as do scores of books that his publishing house ushered into the world. 

Like countless other bookstores and small businesses, City Lights has been hurt by the pandemic. Last year, the store decided to appeal to the public for help, asking for $300,000 in a fundraising campaign. Fans of City Lights from all over the world contributed, returning Ferlinghetti’s generosity. To date, more than half a million dollars has been donated by more than 10,000 people. Unlike a lot of other bookstores, City Lights is lucky to own its building; it doesn’t have to fear a landlord who will dramatically raise the rent and put it out of business. And so City Lights may well outlive us all—as it should. That it will flourish will be a testament to our shared love of the place and of the man who opened his doors to everyone.

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