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

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.

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What’s a Literary Tourist to do in Hawaii?

Ihad pretty well resigned myself to lounging by the pool with a good book and a cold Heineken, before I decided to check the Internet. Hawaii, I assumed, was going to be a Literary Tourist wasteland, a jungle of non-literary vegetation.

But I was wrong. Here we were in the middle of what seemed like nowhere (the town of Kona on the Big Island), and I find this great big warehouse of a used bookstore right around the corner. Kona Bay Books offers two miles worth of books. Not first editions, but a good selection of readable novels and non-fiction, many perfect for the beach. Plus there’s a sister store, Hilo Bay Books, on the opposite side of the island.

So off we went on a scenic two hour drive to see how the other half lives, and of course, to check out the books. Along the way we encounter purple flowering Jacaronda trees

next to the complementarily coloured mock orange, nestled, as they are, between these cool cone-shaped mounds (known as Puu Oo)

and fields of dark, healthy-looking lava.

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“Purchases are wrapped in brown paper and tied with string”

The next time you’re in Oamaru, New Zealand you should drop in here:

“Established in 1995, Slightly Foxed Secondhand Books sells good quality books on all subjects including New Zealand local history, modern first editions, fishing, hunting, mountaineering, literature and fiction, history, military, craft and biography.

The shop is located in an Oamaru stone building providing a Victorian style atmosphere with stone walls, wooden floor, sash windows, sofas, tables and chairs and a pot belly stove.

Prices range from $3 to $1500, and the books from recently published to antiquarian, from common-place to rare and collectible.

The proprietors, Jenny Lynch-Blosse and Kahren Thompson, wear Victorian clothing and sales are entered into a spring-back ledger with a fountain pen. Purchases are wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.”

Once you’ve roped up your books, you might want to stroll several doors down for a chat with

Michael O’Brien, If you hit if off you can stay at his place, or take a bookbinding workshop. As he puts it, “I offer a small self-contained studio, adjacent to main house. Separate kitchen and bathroom. Beautifully restored, cosy and warm. French doors open out to a small garden with a fire pit. Main garden is based on permaculture design, with two chickens providing fresh eggs. Private and quiet. I am not always at home, and there is one pussycat onsite. This is ideal for a couple who wish to come to one of my weekend workshops.”

For details on how to flesh out your visit, click here.

Audio: Rae Armantrout on her poetry, and how to be a literary tourist in San Diego. 

Rae Armantrout is an American poet generally associated with Language Poets. She was born in Vallejo, California but grew up in San Diego. She has published more than 10 books of poetry and has been featured in numerous anthologies.

Armantrout teaches at the University of California, San Diego, where she is Professor of Poetry and Poetics. She was awarded the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection of poetry Versed, published by the Wesleyan University Press. The book later earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her work has been honored with an award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008.

We met to discuss among other things, her poetry, William Carlos Williams, place, and how to be a literary tourist in San Diego.

Find information on visiting San Diego here.