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Iconic San Francisco bookstore could close permanently amid COVID-19 shutdown

A legendary San Francisco bookstore that gave voice to the Beat Generation may be forced to close its doors permanently as California’s sweeping coronavirus response takes its toll on small businesses.

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers was closed March 16, around the same time Gov. Gavin Newsom directed all non-essential businesses shuttered to prevent the virus from spreading. Online orders aren’t being processed either, to try to protect employees, said longtime publisher and CEO Elaine Katzenberger, and as a result, no money is coming in.

On Thursday, Katzenberger launched a fundraising campaign to keep the business afloat. The money would go toward paying the full salaries and benefits of City Lights’ 20 employees, she said.

“Our legacy looms large, but we’re a small business like any other,” Katzenberger said. “It just became obvious that we had to do it.”

The GoFundMe campaign had raised nearly $60,000 of its $300,000 goal as of Thursday evening.

Founded in 1953 by two friends, college professor Peter D. Martin and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights became a cultural institution for San Francisco’s bohemians and literati. It was the nation’s first bookstore to exclusively sell paperbacks, many of which skewed towards progressive politics and modern literature.

In 1956, City Lights published the seminal poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsburg, whose works defined the zeitgeist of what would later be called the Beat Generation. His collection of poetry unapologetically described drug use and sex. It was seized by U.S Customs officials and San Francisco police and became the subject of a lengthy obscenity trial.

“Howl & Other Poems” became one of the most influential literary works ever published and is associated with equally subversive titles such as Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and William S. Burrough’s “Naked Lunch.” Not coincidentally, City Lights is located near Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

“Our role has been the same – we’re there to embody a set of ideals and a point of view,” Katzenberger said. “It’s a place for aspirations.”

Katzenberger first started at City Lights 33 years ago. She had never imagined working at a bookstore but immediately fell in love with the store and its mission to disrupt political and social norms, she said. Katzenberger maintains a close friendship with Ferlinghetti, who celebrated his 101st birthday last month in San Francisco.

“Working at City Lights was a cultural education all the time and it still is,” she said.

News of the store’s financial troubles rippled through social media. Best-selling author Neil Gaiman and radio host Peter Sagal shared City Lights’ fundraising campaign and urged people to contribute if possible.

Katzenberger said she is both humbled and energized by the outpouring of support.

“The amount of people giving $5 and $10 is so moving,” she said. “We’ve been around a long time and people do care.”

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