When Lawrence Ferlinghetti tells the story of founding City Lights Bookstore in 1953, he talks about meeting a need. At that time, he says, there was no public place for writers and readers to experience community in San Francisco, and his goal was to create a “literary meeting place” where all would feel welcome. He stocked his new bookshop with affordable paperbacks and kept City Lights open late hours as a way to provide the opportunity for working folks and bohemian types alike to partake in the scene and to mingle with each other. The idea was an immediate success, as the city’s intellectuals and literati quickly made the bookshop their home base and meeting ground. As Ferlinghetti says, “Once we opened up the doors, we could hardly get them closed at night, the place was always packed!”
Fast forward to 2020, and although much has changed in our city and our world, City Lights is still a vital and beloved literary hangout. Each year thousands of people from out of town and around the world make it a point to visit, and our rich community of Bay Area authors, poets and avid readers consider the bookstore a second home, an essential key to a sense of belonging. At this point, almost 70 years since its founding, there are multiple generations, local and distant, who derive a sense of comfort and inspiration from simply knowing that a place like City Lights can still exist, a place that’s driven by ideals, unwavering in its commitment, grounded in a utopian vision of the potential for human creativity to make a better, richer world for all. A steady beacon, City Lights is there whenever we need a place to feel at home with our fellow humans, their ideas and aspirations, their curiosities and their wild dreams of a new beginning.
In fact, for many of us, a world without City Lights is something we don’t want to imagine. For me, personally, it hurts to think of that.
I have had the huge privilege of spending 33 years at City Lights, learning the crafts of bookselling and publishing, working on a project that feels irrefutably meaningful. During all that time, it has never once seemed possible that our momentum could falter and our project could fail, but we’re all in uncharted terrain now. City Lights is faced with formidable challenges at present: our bookstore has been closed to the public since March 16, and must remain closed for an indefinite period of time. Unlike some shops, we’re unable even to process online orders, since we want our booksellers to remain safely at home. With no way to generate income, our cash reserves are quickly dwindling, with bills coming due and with a primary commitment to our staff, who we sent home with full pay and healthcare, and who we hope to keep as healthy and financially secure as possible.
I want to reassure you that we’re doing everything in our power to keep City Lights intact, and to position this beloved institution to play a vital role in what is for now a very uncertain future. We know how much we’re all going to need this place again, this home away from home where we can find each other once more, in person and in books.
We’re exploring every means of possible support, including federal and local grants and loans, but these funds are not guaranteed to come in, and they won’t meet the needs of our short-term future. And so, we must humbly ask for your support. We know what a difficult and uncertain time this is for everyone, and we understand that there are many individuals and organizations in need. If you’re in a position to support us we’ll be extremely grateful to receive that help, and any donation to this campaign will contribute to the cash resources we need to address the immediate future, to take care of our staff, and to create the structures to take City Lights into the future. And if you could let others know about this campaign, we’ll appreciate that immensely, too.
At City Lights we’re always trying to create the world we want to share with our community. We’re passionately committed to our roles as booksellers and publishers. On the shelves of our bookstore and in the titles we publish, we carefully represent a point of view that we believe will empower and enlighten, nurture the seeds of a more equitable, intelligent, and peaceful world. Our goal now is to find new ways to nurture and serve our community during this difficult time, and even in the face of formidable obstacles, we’re feeling inspired. Please be sure to stay in touch with us, keep an eye on our various social media channels, sign up for our newsletters, buy a City Lights title at your local bookstore if you can, or from our storefront on Bookshop . Most of all, please drop us a line to let us know you’re out there. The messages of support and camaraderie are priceless.
Books are a repository for human knowledge and creativity, and a bookshop is like a storehouse for our collective soul. Though it’s dark now, City Lights is there, quietly waiting for us, and when the doors can be opened once more to welcome everyone back inside, the bookstore will become a home again, a place to gather and celebrate together. Until then, please keep faith, read books, and know that we appreciate you so much.