San Francisco United States

Literary San Francisco redux

San Franscisco street car

We were greeted by yet another glorious bright, sunny day.  San Francisco looked spectacular. So what did we do? We ventured forth and – went inside.  Despite the beautiful day,  the draw of City Lights Bookstore 

proved too much. We had to go in.  The iconic shop was established in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti; two years later he started publishing books. Both the store and the publishing house gained notoriety after the obscenity trial that Lawrence faced for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s landmark collection Howl and Other Poems (City Lights, 1956). Today in the store you’ll find an eclectic mix of world literature, some Chapbooks, a wall dedicated to the City Lights imprint (including the 50th Anniversary edition of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems), and a curated selection of book entitled Pedagogies of Resistance. Here’s the list. Plus, there’s a special room upstairs

just for poetry.

Though a tad early for a drink, I did at least skid through the Vesuvio Cafe

next door, where Kerouac, Ginsberg and some of the other Beats used to hang out. Vesuvio, in case you were wondering, is open every day of the year. And, if that sign isn’t titillating enough, across the road there’s a strip club

(yes, there’s an exhilarating seediness to the area), snug up against the privately owned Beat Museum. Though not exactly pristine, it’s worth stopping by – looked like there were some first editions for sale

(not to mention Playboys) in the bookshop, and some artifacts too, that for die-hard fans, are definitely worth checking out. Outside, on the street corner, there’s a very cool looking book mobile.

After the Beats we decided to engage with some painted ladies. We took the bus out. It just so happened that we had to change numbers right around the corner from

the San Francisco Center for the Book. So I hit the pavement, bolted down the street, took my photos, perused an exhibition, and returned to the stop just in time to catch the next bus.

At first I thought this might be one of the ladies

it’s certainly smart enough but, at second glance – might be a bit large. The real deal can be found right up the street in the Alamo Square neighborhood of the city.

Later on in the afternoon we jumped on the BART and enjoyed a quick, easy ride over to Oakland for a reading at East Bay Books where poet Matthew Zapruder (who I planned to interview the following afternoon for my Biblio File podcast – actually you can listen to us here)

absorbed Steve Almond in conversation about the latter’s new book Bad Stories: What the hell just happened to our country. It’s Steve’s attempt to “make sense of our historical moment.” In this effort he “looks to literary voices – from Melville to Orwell, from Bradbury to Baldwin – to help explain the roots of our moral erosion as a people.” Well worth reading.

After getting my copy signed we stopped by the Belotti Ristorante E Bottega several doors down. Steve had recommended it. Unfortunately the place was solidly booked – so we had to settle for pizza

and a very decent compromise it was too.

Next morning I headed out to the Arion Press to interview its founder Andrew Hoyem, while Caroline, my French wife, (yes, I have many wives of different nationalities), hopped over to Alcatraz

where she saw a sign near one of the cells which read, in part: “these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, etc. are especially popular. Other authors include Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, Washington Irving, Zane Grey, Hamilton Garland, Alexandre Dumas, Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad, [and] Cervantes…” Impressive. A way for prisoners to escape without escaping. Something that may today be in jeopardy.

Located in the Presidio National Park, right in the city, the Arion Press has, over the years, produced more than 100 beautifully crafted books – many of them wedding great prose with great art – American versions of the French livres d’artistes. Andrew  – a clear-eyed, healthy-looking man of 82 – greeted me at the door. He took me on a tour of the facility which included a look at some beautiful old presses,

this Smyth binding machine,

and scads of type that lined the walls, all of which were/are for sale.

I particularly admired these bound pages from the press’s Lectern Bible.

The shop was as clean as a Japanese oshibori towel. You can see for yourself, although you probably wont get Andrew as your tour guide. Tours commence every Thursday afternoon at 3.30pm.

After we’d finished our Biblio File interview about the history of the press and some of its more acclaimed productions (listen here)

Andrew invited me to stay for lunch in the gallery. We were joined by his wife, author Diana Ketchum. The talk was good. The salad and sandwich healthy, the local beer tasty, and the cookies, delicious. The view was pretty decent too

And as if this wasn’t enough, on my way out the door Andrew put a copy of his Grabhorn Press 1920-1965 and Beyond, an illustrated catalogue for an exhibition at the Grolier Club, into my hands. I could have kissed him.


I had one more appointment that afternoon, an interview with the aforementioned Matthew Zapruder. After a quick stop at the store for ‘essential provisions’ (an exceptional Belgian beer called Duvel, pronounced Devil), we sat down in his Oakland office to discuss his important new book of criticism, Why Poetry.


And that about does it. One memorable, in fact not to be forgotten, literary trip to the San Francisco Bay area in California. Now, all that’s left is for you to start planning yours.

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