San Francisco

‘This Place is About Discovery:' Celebrating Poet Ferlinghetti's 100th Birthday at his Iconic City Lights Bookstore

The bookstore was founded by iconic poet and painter, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and quickly became the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore.

What to Know

  • City Lights Bookstore was founded by iconic poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.
  • City Lights was the nation's first all-paperback bookstore.
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti is celebrating his 100th birthday this month.

City Lights is a legendary gem nestled in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood - a place where diversity and art meet.

The bookstore was founded by iconic poet and painter, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and quickly became the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore. Since its inception, City Lights has served as a meeting place for writers, artists and creatives seeking to engage with poetry and literature. 

“In the early 50s, there weren’t a lot of independent bookstores and particularly, independent bookstores that thought about younger artists, younger people and communities of color as part of their audience,” said Paul Yamazaki, a coordinating buyer at City Lights. “The independent bookstores that existed at the time tended to be what I call, ‘white glove stores’ that were more proper.” 

For Yamazaki, City Lights has been his “university” since he first started working at the bookstore in 1970. At the time, Yamazaki had just completed serving a six-month jail sentence and recalls leaving San Francisco Hall of Justice, seeing his family and within a span of four days, getting a job at City Lights.

“City Lights has been my university, so year by year I’ve been exposed to books, artists and dedicated readers,” Yamazaki said. 

For the last 49 years, Yamazaki has not only witnessed the evolution of North Beach and American literary writing, but he’s also worked closely with Ferlinghetti, making sure the bookstore continues to stock meaningful diverse literature.

Iconic poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti poses in front of his beloved City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

“Lawrence is a rare combination of poet, visionary and very practical,” Yamazaki said. “Most people think of Lawrence as kind of this great poet and painter, which he is, but they almost take it for granted that we’re still here after almost 70 years.”

Despite the effects of the digital tech boom in the Bay Area, Yamazaki says he’s noticed much of the younger generation understands the importance of reading paperback books.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in my close to 50 years of doing this is that young people of color that are both politically active and culturally active, recognize the desire and need within their own communities for bookstores,” Yamazaki said. “[They] understand the value of screen-based reading but have a bigger appreciation of the difference between screen and print.” 

The legacy of Ferlinghetti and City Lights is more than just a book lover’s literary dream, it’s as Yamazaki described, “a place of discovery.” In celebration of Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday, the bookstore will be holding several events to honor him and his work. Although Ferlinghetti will not be attending, he stated he was happy to hear people are celebrating his birthday.


Ferlinghetti’s 100th Birthday Celebration
When: Sunday, March 24th, 1-5 p.m.
Where: 261 Columbus Ave. San Francisco
A celebration of Ferlinghetti’s 100th Birthday with a day or readings and reminiscences

Also that day:

Where: Vesuvio, 255 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
When: Sunday, March 24th, 3-4 p.m.
Bay Area poets readings

Where: Canessa Gallery, 708 Montgomery St., San Francisco
When: Sunday, March 24th, 1-5 p.m.
Screening of the documentary “Lawrence: A Lifetime in Poetry”

Where: Cafe Zoetrope, 916 Kearny St, San Francisco
When: Sunday, March 24th, 2-3 p.m.
Poetry Readings

Where: Specs Bar, 12 William Saroyan Place
When: Sunday, March 24th at 6 p.m.
Birthday after-party with appearances from poet Jessica Loos and Specs owner Elly Simmons

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