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 Continue reading “Literary San Francisco redux”

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.

Continue reading “A literary adventure in San Francisco”

San Francisco and The Arion Press here we come

The Arion Press was founded in San Francisco in 1974 by Andrew Hoyem growing out of a partnership he had with Robert Grabhorn using the Grabhorn Press‘s famed collection of metal type. Arion has published more than 100 fine press books, many of which are illustrated with prints by prominent artists.

Each year the press publishes three or four “exquisite” books in editions of 400 copies or less. Titles over the years have included Moby Dick, a lectern edition of the Bible, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Other books include treatments of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Emily Dickinson, novels by Samuel Beckett, H.G. Wells, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf. and plays by Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, Edward Albee and Arthur Miller. These books are highly collectible.

Hoyem was born in 1935. He is an accomplished printer, a published poet, and an exhibited artist. His Arion Press, named after the Greek poet known in myth for having been kidnapped by pirates and miraculous rescued by dolphins, has been called America’s “leading publisher of fine-press books.” The concepts for all Arion publications originate with Hoyem, who chooses literary texts, commissions new work from writers and artists he admires, and designs the books, including their bindings and typography.

Many rank Hoyem’s edition of Moby Dick among the greatest American fine-press books ever published. His most ambitious project, the Folio Bible, took several years to complete. This is likely to be the last Bible ever to be printed from metal type.

In 1989 Arion acquired Mackenzie & Harris, “the oldest and largest remaining type foundry in the United States, established with equipment displayed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915.” In 2000 Hoyem founded the nonprofit Grabhorn Institute to “help preserve and continue the operation of one of the last integrated facilities for type-founding, letterpress printing, and bookbinding, developing it as a living museum and educational and cultural center, open to the public, with a gallery and tours as well as an apprenticeship program.”

I’ll be in San Francisco next month. I plan to visit the Arion Press, where I’ll enjoy the privilege of interviewing Mr. Hoyem for The Biblio File podcast. I’m pumped. Stay tuned!

Literary Tourist City Guides

Photo Credit: Chris Wood           Wonder if this streetcar is named desire?

Some years ago Poets and Writers started running a great series of articles detailing literary life in cities throughout the United States. Specifically, “they asked  those in the literary community—authors, booksellers, publishers, editors, and the like—to take us on a tour of their city of residence: to the places they go to connect with writers of the past, to the bars and cafés where today’s authors give readings, and to those sites that are most inspiring for writing.”

This of course describes very well the plight of the literary tourist. Although some of the articles date back to 2011, and thus may be slightly out of date, for the most part these pieces serve as terrific literary ‘City Guides.’ The inside scoop from those in the know.

I plan to visit San Francisco soon and so am particularly interested in reading this. Here’s a link to the whole series. 

I’ve already lined up an interview with Andrew Hoyem, typographer, letterpress printer, publisher, poet, and founder of Arion Press, for my Biblio File podcast. Also plan to talk to someone at The Book Club of California, and am working on Dave Eggers, publisher at McSweeney’s.

Judging from their tourism webside alone, San Francisco is one happening town. Should be a blast!