By Richard Carreño
[WritersClearinghouse News Service] Posted 7 August 2014
San Francisco is well known for many things: Steve McQueen's blistering car chase in Bullitt. For the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and huffing and puffing up (and down) Telegraph Hill. Its user-friendly public transportation system (refurbished, retired trolleys and, of course, its hokey cable cars). An odd comestible known as Rice-A-Roni (and its catchy 'San Francisco Treat' ad jingle). Levis are of course synonymous with the city, and so are the 49ers who wore them. And who can forget the still wet-behind the ears Michael Douglas debuting in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco?
But I knew I was in for a different kind of 'treat' as I settled in with my cabin mates for my flight from Philly to SFO. The surrounding businessmen were clearly representatives of a new, evolving San Francisco, and one I hadn't known before. And my last visit was only five years ago. Sporting iPads, iPhones, laptops, ear-plugs, and headsets, these New-Age 49ers where hardly Rice-A-Roni types. My heavily-wired companions, of course, were newly-minted Silicon Valley standard-bearers, and I doubt they were iTuned to Tony Bennett waxing lyrical about leaving his heart in the 'City by the Bay.'
Welcome to San Francisco's corporate world of Google, PayPal, and Facebook -- and generic billion-dollar 'Googlers' from Instagram, Yelp, HubPages, Dropbox, Pinterest, Twitter, and dozens of other Internet sensations. If there were any Levis in sight, they were skinny jean versions, matched with shortie jackets, skinny ties, rectangular-shaped eyeglass frames, and other accouterments pinched from the pages of a recent J. Crew catalogue. Or, rather, this being San Francisco, Gap Inc and Banana Republic, also headquartered here.
My return involved a more old-fashioned mission. Armed with a copy of Long Ago in France by M.F.K. Fisher (my non-electronic form of entertainment), I came to visit a Bay bookshop -- and buy a book. Not any bookshop. Nor any book.
For this plugged-in metropolis, my mission was downright quixotic. A bookshop? A book? San Francisco, after all, had long ago lost any claim to dead-tree publishing when Rolling Stone and Hearst moved to New York and when, more recently, the San Francisco Examiner, one of the West's better dailies, unceremoniously folded. In new San Francisco, even such a relatively contemporary author as my most recent read, the late M.F.K. Fisher, an erstwhile northern California resident, smacks almost of as much musty ancient history as Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Jack Kerouac, and Mark Twain, all of whom were one-time leading literary lights here.
And my personal favorite, the late great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Lucius Beebe, who, in the mid-20th century, wielded his poison pen against the forces of modernity and change with wit and fury. Though he was writing decades before the advent of the Internet, it's doubtful that any nascent Mark Zuckerberg would have found any succor in the outspoken writer's acid-laced musings.'In Kansas City or Keokuk big thinkers and forward lookers are treated with slavering adulation. In San Francisco they use the trademen's entrance,' he dissed with customary distain. You can almost see the flick of his wrist.
Even remnants of San Francisco noir are hard to find. Yes, Dashiell Hammett Street, recognizing Sam Spade's creator, is a reminder of the city's trenchant literary history. Yes, you can still amble around the Stockton Tunnel, to where on Burritt Street Miles Archer met his maker in a fusillade of bullets. But Sam's Grill, nearby on Belden Place, the seafood restaurant that was the flesh-and-blood Hammett's favorite, was, according to signage, temporarily closed when I stopped by the other day. Actually, it looked forever closed.
My quest led me to City Lights Bookstore, arguably the West's most recognized and eminent bookseller. And, just as memorably, as a free speech mecca.
This duality harks back to to shop's Beat Generation roots and to its controversial founder, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The shop's original premise, as an all-paperback bookseller, was, in 1953 when the store opened, something of a big deal. So was its dedication to avant garde literature and poetry, which soon led Ferlinghetti to create City Lights Publishers. That subsidiary's subsequent publication of the works of Beat poet Alan Gingsberg, in turn, led in 1957 to the cause célèbre that forever changed the legal definition of First Amendment publication rights.
The case targeted Ginsberg's poetry volume Howl, kickstarting a series of Keystone Cop actions involving a police raid of the bookshop, the confiscation of import copies of Howl, and even Ferlinghetti's arrest. Though he could have probably just paid a fine to have the issue go away, Ferlinghetti instead fought back. The result was a precedent-setting verdict declaring that any published work that has 'the slightest redeeming social importance' is protected under the First Amendment.
The trial put City Lights on Page 1 of The New York Times -- and forever on the literary map for its historic championing of free speech. And now, in later years, not surprisingly, as tourist attraction, joining a cadre of select bookshops around the world that embrace a particular literary aura. (City Lights has a loose association with one of those bookstores, Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, whose later-day owner, the late George Whitman, was Ferlinghetti's friend. A small, wooden Shakespeare & Co. sign over a doorway leading into City Lights commemorates the mutual admiration).
When I recently visited, the shop's warren of rooms in storefront at 261 Columbus Avenue were humming with shoppers, mostly young people.
I looked hard. Not a Googler in sight.
Oh, yes, about that book I was seeking. Howl, perhaps? No, I already have a copy.
My hunt was for the recently published English-language edition of A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the late French author and screen writer. Like Howl, it's a hot potato, described as something like the Brothers Grimm on tour with the Marquis de Sade. Add incest, sexual torture, and tales of pubescent sex, and the book wound up in shrink-wrap with a warning label when it was originally published in France by Fayard in 2007.
Since then, American publishers have been reluctant to take on the book, citing its X-rated material as a deterrent to any marketing success and a possible source of censorious public backlash. In other words, forget the hard-won Howl verdict! Political correctness, anyone?
Finally, this year, seven years after its French appearance, a cobbled funding collaboration by the University of Illinois, the Illinois Arts Council, and by the French Centre national du livre gave life to the English-language edition, translated by D.E. Brooke.
Of course, I asked for the book.
'We have five copies,' a sales clerk instantly responded.