Tara Brabazon: Book to the future: how bookshops can survive

The internet does not have to spell disaster for the publishing industry: Tara Brabazon visits the San Francisco bookstore that holds out hope

July 15, 2009

There is much talk about iPhones and apps, Tweets and vodcasts. But while record shops are crushed by legal and illegal downloading, the concurrent closure of bookshops is rarely as publicised. Waterstone’s remains, yet its commitment to serious titles has fallen as the sales of Katie Price and Jade Goody auto/biographies rise. Charing Cross Road – once a haven for bibliophiles – is a shadow of its former self. Murder One has closed, with its website reporting: “we are not a bookstore anymore”. Silver Moon has been “incorporated” into Foyles. Some businesses, such as Sports Pages, have migrated online.

Our university bookshops are also suffering. Conservative buying practices ensure the purchase of textbooks that have passed through too many revisions and incorporated too little new research. The great works that appear on further reading lists – the “read before you die books” – have tipped off the shelves.

The impact on readers, writers and publishers is clear. In the 2009 summer edition of the Society of Authors’ magazine, The Author, a range of articles explore the role of supermarkets in selling books, the shrinkage of newspapers’ readerships and the decline of the book review. Perhaps the most disturbing article in this important magazine is by Sara Nelson. She states that “the one thing you hear every day is that ‘publishing is going global’. But unless we come up with better ideas than these, the only way global publishing is going is south.” One obvious solution to Nelson’s concerns is reinvesting the local, regional and national with intellectual and commercial value, rather than making arbitrary and ambiguous statements about globalisation, internationalisation and mobility. Good bookshops with informed and enthusiastic staff are part of this strategy to invest a place with a purpose.

Such an agenda is not an attack on the Amazonification of books. The problem is that we go to Amazon looking for a particular title or author. Rarely do we browse. Sometimes a fortuitous link will emerge through an automated listing of related titles or similar purchases. The problem with such a shopping system is that we search for ideas, topics and authors that are already known to us. There are few mechanisms to alert us to unusual or dissenting ideas and information. While we appear to search the world wide web, too often we fill a shallow, personal shopping basket. A decreasing number of book reviews reduces the chance of stumbling across a challenging, new and defiant monograph from a small publishing house.

Important bookshops with experienced buyers and knowledgeable staff hold a pivotal role in contemporary life. They connect the physical experience of shopping with an expertise that is wide-ranging and distinct from our personal biases and imperatives. One bookshop that has fulfilled this role and is arguably the most famous in the world is City Lights in San Francisco. A political magnet and tourist beacon at 261 Columbus Avenue, the shop applies a series of ideas that are fashionable in the creative industries literature such as city imaging, urban regeneration and the bohemian index. But what makes it stand out is that it is one of the few examples in the world where a shop – let alone a bookshop – is a hub of tourism. While Alcatraz, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge are spectacular, it is the cultural cluster at North Beach that gives the city distinction and fame. Its urban history aligns creativity, dissent, commerce and political progressivism while integrating books into popular culture.

Most famously, City Lights is known as a home of the Beat poets. The Beat Generation was born in New York City, but became part of popular culture in San Francisco. Like the narrative of On the Road, the Beats were always heading towards Frisco. While Kerouac lived fast, drank faster and died too early, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has enacted the greatest revenge on his critics by outliving them. He founded City Lights Bookstore with Peter Martin in 1953 as the first all-paperback bookshop in the United States. A publishing arm became part of the project. It gained international fame and notoriety in 1956 when Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was labelled “obscene”. Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao, the manager of the bookstore, were arrested. While Ferlinghetti and City Lights successfully defended the obscenity charge – and book sales boomed from the publicity – it was a moment of collision between pop and poetry.

From the Howl trial, City Lights became bigger than the Beats and remains today a hub for a diversity of thinkers, writers and intellectuals. Its publishing programme includes attention to colonialism, South American history, multiculturalism, gay and lesbian politics and Marxist and feminist theories.

Throughout my adult life, City Lights has been a beacon, a confirmation that there is a way to enact ethical commerce with a political agenda. Richard Walker of the University of California, Berkeley realised that “San Franciscans, particularly intellectuals, have moved in counterflow to mainstream ideas of modernity.” City Lights has productively disengaged from “business as usual” by remaining an unchained independent bookshop that enfolds a publishing house.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I interviewed Peter Maravelis, the events manager of City Lights. He spoke to me about books, bookshops and politics.

TB: You run many of the events at City Lights. Why are events created by City Lights Bookstore? What is their role in the bookshop’s activities?

PM: I think my mission statement and City Lights’ mission statement are very, very close. And I take my lead from the work of Marcel Mauss. What do you do with the excess? What do you do with the excess of resources? But to find a way to bring the community together in a celebration of culture has been the mission. We go from the academic community to the arts to people working with translating languages.

I think that from the punk rock scene initially and having followed the Situationists – and also working with academics who are also on the fringe, you might say – I was very much interested in what an event is, what a happening is. And some of the happenings of the Sixties influenced me very much, such as what Fluxus was doing. When I arrived at City Lights, there wasn’t really anyone doing it. There wasn’t an imperative to do it. And I think that the beauty of the place is that people who work there can help shape it and so, you know, I put forth the idea of doing more of these events. I did have some very specific ideas and it really follows our philosophy.

Our philosophy is in tune with progressive politics, with understanding globalisation and the way that conservatism functions abroad. We’re creating a bulwark for freedom of speech and for all the various movements, whether they are global liberation movements, ecology, you name it. So we’re trying to create a bulwark that at the same time gives voice to a lot of people that have been marginalised.

From the very start, my idea was to create a forum, a place, in the same way that City Lights’ mission is to create an environment to which people come and create a dialogue; the dialogue is between reader and writer and it’s a dialogue that follows progressive literature – fiction over the ages. There is a continuum even prior to City Lights’ inception. You had the renaissance of literature in San Francisco. Prior to that was the conscientious objector movement of the earlier part of the last century where people were protesting against the First World War and pointing out what was ill-conceived about war in general. So it’s followed the Vietnam War, the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, and it is current to this very day.

TB: How long have you worked at City Lights and how do you believe the function of bookshops has changed during your time there?

PM: I’ve been working there since 1992. When I first started we were lucky if we could do one [event] a month. And I began to curate the series [of talks, readings and debates], thinking about what we’ve released as a publishing house and about how we’ve curated the books in the various sections of the store. We simply expanded upon that mission statement. What we’ve done is to do more of what we do. Part of it is also because of the internet, so it’s helped in that sense of authors being able to help us in marketing them and sending them to places and hooking them up with academics or cultural centres that can sponsor them.

TB: How have online booksellers like Amazon transformed the bookselling market?

PM: Strangely, I don’t think it’s affected us very much at all. We exist in a completely different realm. And because of who and what we are, we occupy a “niche”, and I put that in quotes. I think bookstores that are succeeding are doing much the same thing. Look at St Mark’s Bookshop in New York, look at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, look at Seminary Books in Chicago or Quimby’s, which is a really wonderful little bookstore in Chicago that has a broad range of zines and a fabulous queer theory section. What they’ve done is taken a close look at who they’re serving, the community, and they’ve attempted to create and curate a selection of books and also curate a reading series and it’s very much like what we do. I’m not saying that people have copied us. I’m just noticing that the people who are succeeding are doing that very, very well.

TB: I’m loving the use of the word curate. City Lights also has an online portal. Have you sociological differences between those who come into the shop and those who buy books and other materials online?

PM: No, not really. It goes clear across the board in terms of ethnicity and sex; there are people who purchase books from all over the world and people who come into the store from all over the world. It’s a very similar demographic.

TB: Peter, as an author and editor, what do you think is the role of bookshops in the production and dissemination of books in our digitalised age?

PM: Working at City Lights, we’ve discovered that it’s important to understand the constituents. It’s good to know who the community is composed of, and this goes back to our origins. It’s especially important for other bookstores that don’t have our particular cultural track record to understand the community they are in and be able to form links to that community.

TB: How do you feel balancing progressive politics with event management, which is so often co-opted into a particular form of capitalism?

PM: It’s a good question. I cherry-pick who I work with. We’ve never felt the imperative to work with a house because they’re offering us co-op money. I think this is the genius of Ferlinghetti, the fact that he created a publishing house and a bookstore. One hand, in essence, washes the other so that we’re not at the mercy financially of any entity. That is why years ago Lawrence refused to take government money for any of his work or for City Lights. The idea is to keep ourselves autonomous and afloat and that gives us the freedom to be able to pick and choose in terms of who we bring into the store, who we represent, and so for us we don’t see much of a conflict. Yes, we do have people who are part of bigger [publishing] houses, but – is there a contradiction? Yes and no. People such as Naomi Klein, who’s done a great deal of good, are with much larger houses that help to disseminate their work across the board.

There are times when I do create forums and I do bring in people who have opposing opinions. But, you know, generally speaking, we have only so many days in the week so we prefer to focus on people who are not being heard.

TB: What are your criteria for creating a good event for City Lights? Do you have a checklist that you go through?

PM: Absolutely. It’s got to raise my blood pressure a little. It’s got to get my blood boiling. There’s also got to be a need in the community. When I bring some good writing home and it really excites me and I share it with my co-workers and it excites them and then I share it with the community and then it’s obvious that something is happening with some new writer. We generally try to bring them in and often they are writers that aren’t even going to be sent out by their [publishing] house. But we try to find a way to send them out, even if it is speaking to universities and to a gig at another cultural centre. We have a lot of contemporary fiction, a lot of literature in translation, current events we’re very interested in, in terms of political critique and sociological critique, that is outside of the norm and the mainstream media, and of course the arts; and then there are our own authors. That’s pretty much how the schedule is designed seasonally.

TB: Tourism matters a great deal to San Francisco. What do you think the role of City Lights Bookshop and Publisher is in building the portfolio of tourism of San Francisco?

PM: We’re interested in spreading our particular virus, above all. But tourism is very important. You can do it intelligently. I don’t think you really need to set up chain stores. What a lot of people in North Beach have been doing is keeping out the chain stores for years. So the businesses that have been opening fit with the continuum of businesses and also the ethnicity of the denizens of North Beach for the last century. So you’ll see a lot of Italian restaurants still opening up and even smaller shops that are run by people who have lived in San Francisco all their lives. So it’s very heartening. It is a very hopeful time for small businesses while the larger businesses are collapsing. We’re seeing – slowly – the ebb going the other way.

TB: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of physical bookshops? What can we do to protect and look after these institutions in an online environment?

PM: A book is one of the greatest fetish items in the world. You will never see bookstores go under on account of that, so long as we still have bodies, unless there is a great singularity around and sweeps us all off the face of the planet. Unlikely, I think. So I’m actually extremely hopeful for the book. What I think you will see, though, is that there will be fewer bookstores and they all may be filling a specific niche in the same way as City Lights is filling a niche. People are going to have to know their constituents very well. They are going to have to bring people into their orbit. I think bookstores are going to take the function of being community centres. They are going to be great meeting places, in the same way that City Lights is.


Jacques Lacan famously proclaimed that “I think where I am not.” Perhaps what has created City Lights’ success is that the staff think, organise, buy and sell where they are. They understand the potentials and problems of the local, the analogue, the corporeal, the historical and the liminal. Perhaps Peter Maravelis is right. Bookshops will become our new “community centres”. Maybe they will create a model for a more intelligent consumerism and event management. Observing the train wreck of the financial sector, these special and specialist bookshops may provide a pathway to a better mode of capitalism.

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