San Francisco United States

A literary adventure in San Francisco

Poet Weldon Keys is best known for parking his car at the Marin end of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955 and disappearing without a trace.

Two things hit me as I walked the streets of San Francisco recently. First, the sweet, strong, distinctive (pleasant) smell of Californian weed wafting its way through the air at pretty well every street corner.* Second, the realization that a Literary Tourist can have a lot of fun in this city.

I never really enjoyed smoking pot, too much hysterical laughter over nothing, and finding ordinary ideas profound. I do however love a well bound book. Hence, the first item on my San Franciscan agenda  was an interview with Anita Engles, Executive Director of The American Bookbinders Museum, “the only museum of its kind in North America!”

Early Saturday afternoon I made my way down – and I do mean down –

on the Powell Street cable car from the much storied Fairmont Hotel where we were staying – check out the foyer

famed publisher James Laughlin stayed here after a ski trip in Washington state in December 1936, the year he founded New Directions. Apparently he made himself ill eating the “marvellous” French cuisine at the Fairmont – to Clementina Street in the heart of San Francisco’s SoMa/Yerba Buena District where the museum is located. Along the way I dropped into the Hotel Rex in the theatre district to admire some of

their author drawings

– the hotel is named after poet Kenneth Rexroth and is home to a library bar

that features literary-themed cocktails, live music and author readings; and John’s Grill,

only a few blocks away, close to Union Square. John’s was built in 1908, the first downtown restaurant to open after the city’s famed earthquake of 1906. John’s is renowned for hosting celebrities from around the world; more importantly, it’s where Sam Spade dined out in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon. The same dish he ate is on the menu – Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops. Upstairs you’ll find a glass case displaying a first edition of the book, along with a statue of the black bird itself. Many have suggested that John Huston’s film, with its femme fatales and ‘shady sleuths’ marked the beginnings of film noir.

From John’s, the final destination is a short 10 minute walk away. Its collection of bookbinding equipment is accessible by guided tour only; these are conducted twice daily. You can go to the website to buy tickets. I lucked out and got a personal  swing through the building with docent Madeleine Robins. She is a “font” of knowledge, really informative, interested and entertaining. Afterwards I interviewed Anita Engles. We talked about the museum, and, toward the end of our conversation, about places in San Francisco the literary tourist will want to visit. You can listen here



After we said our goodbyes I ducked around the corner to check out Chronicle Books’s retail store where I happily browsed through some of their distinctive, colourful books.

If I’d been better prepared, I would have booked tickets in advance. As it stood, Timon of Athens (Nabokov gets his title for Pale Fire from Timon and references it throughout the novel) at the Exit Theatre, also within walking distance, was sold out; so instead we enjoyed a leisurely Vietnamese meal and an early evening ahead of the following morning’s trip to City Lights Bookstore, a look at some of San Francisco’s painted ladies,

and an afternoon author reading over in Oakland.


Stay tuned for Part II of this great West coast literary adventure. In the meantime you might want to visit San Francisco Travel’s website for the latest on what’s happening in the city.

* Yes, recreational use is now legal in California. Residents can possess up to 28.5 grams of marijuana flower and up to 8 grams of concentrates. They can also grow up to six plants each…much to the chagrin of Jeff Sessions.

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge by Caroline Liguori

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