Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Happy 60th Birthday to City Lights Bookstore

I find the death of the bookstore to be sad. I have found myself taking my sons to my local independent bookstores and even having pit stops when we are on the road at a Barnes and Noble. It makes sense – B&N have good bathrooms, passable coffee, and we can walk around.

I am as much to blame for the demise of the bookstore as anyone. I deny any connection to my first public author signing at a Borders and their announcement the next day that they were closing all stores.

Borders 0211I buy most of my books online and as ebooks. It is not just a matter of convenience or price: I genuinely believe in the environmental necessity of ebooks. As an author, my focus is on creating an online platform and this translates (outside the first week or so of a book launch) into consistently selling more ebooks than tree books.

But I realize that I am increasingly treating these trips to a bookstore like a visit to a museum. I will tell my children how you can make spontaneous choices this way, ask advice from staff who are always genuine book lovers (they would not work there I assume otherwise), and enjoy the smell of the bookstore.

My kids know that I am not exactly telling the truth. We rarely buy books on these visits, scouring the bargain bins perhaps, and I often resort to their please to purchase something that I will look it up used online.

I recently went to a book launch of a friend and bought her book at the store, standing in line to get her autograph. It is the actions of a good friend showing up for someone they care about. The book was one-third more expensive than it was new on Amazon. But this is a friend and, in a strange sense, I felt an appreciation for the staff of the bookstore for hosting her.

But one bookstore stands alone, at least in my stomping grounds. Last month City Lights celebrated its 60th birthday. There is a great article here and I don’t want to simply hash out the same story.

imgres-3When I first came to the US and told someone that I dreamed about using fiction as social activism and commentary on our society, they smiled: “You gonna be another Kerouac?”

I could see the disappointment on their face when I asked: “Who?” I looked around, half expecting the immigration police to appear, tear up my green card, and deport me to Canada.

Patriotically, I devoured On The Road and The Dharma Bums, and this began a long and wonderful journey into the beat movement. I feel privileged to still meet men and women who were beatniks. The sequel to Unwanted Heroes is a modern day tribute to the beat generation.

When I told someone of my new interest, they promptly sent me to City Lights (and the Jack Kerouac Alley, and the museum, and oh those delicious Italian pastries in North Beach!).

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I often return to City Lights and always buy a book. I stand in reverence on the top floor, which is dedicated to the beatniks who gathered there under Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I wrote a scene in the sequel to Unwanted Heroes, which I really witnessed as an elderly couple came upstairs and were looking through a coffee table-type book of the beatniks in Paris. They found a photo that included the old man. We spent a wonderful hour together as he reminisced. It was a very special hour and one I will never forget.

That doesn’t happen at an online bookstore. Even if this gentleman had crafted a well-written article about his time in Paris, it could never compare to sitting and listening to him telling it in his own voice.

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It was a magical moment – so thank you to City Lights for still being around. I will bring my sons to the bookstore and they can buy any darn book they want!

Happy 60th birthday.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of GalbriethAlon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter. For more about the author, check out his website.

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