City Lights Bookstore – San Francisco Artist’s Guide

Dawson Turner
DSCN0225 Copy Min

Writing what I know, how I know. Shuffled feet, a population of chins to the floor, interest sung in eyebrow-raised “hms.” City Lights Bookstore, now celebrating its 70th anniversary, has been my second home in San Francisco. Operating as an independent bookstore-publisher and longtime hub for writers of all creed since 1953, this official historical landmark has three full stories of specially curated literature. The name, itself an homage to Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film of the same name, already radiates warmth. A beckoning light of joy. I’ve already spent hours in its basement and poetry room. The staff is friendly, the vibes are sublime, doors open everyday 10am-10pm to all who seek a community bound by knowledge.

[Images by Dawson]



It’s a tranquil space not commonly found, at least in any city I’ve been to in the United States. There is so much already written about this literary landmark in the heart of San Francisco, justly so, and I do not care!

I will happily add to it not only because it is already close to my heart, but because of its literal proximity to the Pacific Tradewinds Hostel. A beautiful ten minute walk! Maybe not even that. It’s a brisk ten minute, twelve minute walk for me because I take my sweet time. Maybe it’s just because of my long legs.

And what’s a ten minute walk in San Francisco anyway? A ten minute walk where I’m from in Austin, Texas is maybe from one highway intersection to the closest McDonalds.



DSCN0231 Copy Min
Jack Kerouac Alley spliced between Versuvio and City Lights Bookstore

Turning off Sacramento to Kearney, we’ve got the gargantuan towers of the neighboring Financial District running along the right facing Chinatown. The first intersection met is Columbus, North Beach’s prominent wide street notably cornered with the gorgeous green flatiron Sentinel Building clad in white tile and copper. In no distance is an array of shops, tea shops, restaurants, cafes, then on the left lies our beloved City Lights.

In the two weeks I’ve been in Chinatown I’ve already made numerous visits, plucking books off the shelf and reading them leisurely in the reticent basement or up in the ‘poetry room’ on the second floor. The room is entirely dedicated to its respective art form, entire sections dedicated to namely The Beats, landmark Queer works, local writers.

Furthest wall two windows, one eternally cracked, face the creaky ascending steps. In front of both windows lay chairs waiting for guests to take a load off their feet and take a beat to read a book, snippet, excerpt, essay. Nothing quite like the wandering wind through the screen and distant noise of the city to accompany a good read.


PoeRoom Min
Courtesy of City Lights website

DSCN0225 Copy Min


Within its walls I’ve burned already through Bell Hook’s All About Love, Andreas Malm’s How To Blow Up A Pipeline, and Andrea Abreu’s Dogs Of Summer. Not dense works by any means, nor light, but enriching and enjoyed. Next on my list is whatever jumps out from the wooden shelves.


And it’s still a lamp for local artists. As a cultural center, it’s eternel. Of course one could live fifty lifetimes and never make it through City Lights’ library, any library. One morning on my walk to a local cafe up Columbus to get some writing done, a vendor had set up a table in the alley between Vesuvio and City Lights sporting vintage books, graphic novels, zines. Many of his own publication. I’ll boost.


IMG 3993 Min
“The Secrets of Street Photography” – easy $10 cop

RE/SEARCH by V. Vale. Longtime Chinatown resident and respective publisher, and a very humble guy. I grazed over the assortment and happily purchased an invigorating zine chock full of some straight knowledge on black and white street photography. A spread of some very cool shit. An essential read for me.

For anyone who cares, the film notably used was TRI-X 400. “Pushed a stop for more depth, of course you know,” Vale told me. I’m getting off topic, but whatever. Only found near – and once published by – City Lights!

Whether you’re visiting SF for a night or seven, I implore you, spend just an hour in this place. It will give back.

Leave a comment

Thanks for visiting our Hostel's page

As a new friend, we have a gift for you!

You can save money on your reservation by becoming a ITH Traveler's Club Member
We respect your privacy.