When I was a kid I read for hours in the local bookstores, working my way through the Hardy Boys detective series, then moving on to Ian Fleming’s secret service novels. I didn’t understand anything about detectives or spies, so it was strictly fill-in-the-blanks, piecing together a picture of the world from bookrack to bookrack, unguided, racing through the set-ups to the death-defying sex scenes.
I loved the nearest branch of the public library too, ever since the Friday night when I was six, in 1960: My pal Pete Damon and I had our first sleepover and brought five or six picture books about bugs back to the house to study by flashlight, all night in bed. That’s still one of the best times I ever had in my life, it was so much fun, reading about walking sticks, and praying mantises, sharing the pictures of anthills and beehives. Life seemed huge, friendly, ancient, inexhaustible.
But the reading experience at Ulbrich’s Books at the local suburban plaza, was different. They had popular titles, the latest things, like The Sport Of Judo by Kiyoshi Kobayashi and Harold Sharp. Me and Pete poured over that and eventually brought it home, learning to throw each other all over the yard, using Advanced Foot Sweeps, and the Major Outer Rear Drop Throw. That was 1965, when I was 10. I still have my copy of that summertime obsession.
Another big bookstore discovery, perhaps the most important, was in February, 1966, when a Dell paperback called Folk-Rock: the Bob Dylan Story, by Sy and Barbara Ribakove, appeared one day on the same rack that held James Bond and Mike Hammer. “The First! The one and only!” shouted the cover in a red balloon. I purchased a copy for 50 cents. The book began with a list of all the times Dylan ran away from home, and told the story of his first flight, to Chicago, when he was ten.
“Destiny appeared in the form of a weathered Negro street singer strumming a guitar. Bob, awed, couldn’t pull himself away. ‘I went up to him and began accompanying him on spoons—I used to play the spoons when I was little.’ …Before the police corralled him and took him home to his parents, Bob spent three months tagging after the street player and his friends, one of whom gave him the priceless gift of an old guitar.” Man, that’s better than Pinocchio.
As I got into my teenage years, I found and read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a book that still carries a message for me. Norman Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam? amazed me because the story was of a teenage genius named DJ, along on his father’s demented hunting expedition to Alaska. The novels that spoke to me the most were Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. It seemed like you could base your whole life on those. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island Of the Mind, and Leonard Cohen’s The Spice-box Of Earth inspired me to make my own poetry. William Blake became important to my survival, and as life got more psychedelic, I had my portable copy. All of these eye-opening texts came my way at Ulbrich’s Books. I spent hours perusing books in the store, but the owners were patient, and never once threw me out.
I grew up, said goodbye to my pals, and got out of that town a few years later. I remember reading Ed Sanders’ book The Family, before I split. It was a terrifying vision of California, and Charles Manson. At the time,The Greening Of America was a sensation as well, though I never bought it, just glanced into it. And Future Shock. Well, everybody was living that one.
Despite Sanders’ warnings, I landed in San Francisco at 18 years old and began living a precarious existence as a wandering street singer for several years, no doubt inspired by my reading about Bob Dylan’s nonexistent friend.
My bookstore of choice in San Francisco was City Lights, an iconic landmark even then. I knew it was Ferlinghetti’s shop, and had read much of the poetry he’d published by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and others. I’d see him coming and going about his business, as I played on the busy corner across the street.
During the day, if traffic was too slow on the sidewalks to bother playing, or if it was cold or raining, I’d go into City Lights, downstairs into the basement, pick a book out from the shelves, pull up a chair, and read for hours. The Travels of Marco Polo introduced my imagination to the magic, mystery and beauty of the East—what a story! Charles Dickens, and his street characters in Oliver Twist captivated me, with tales of running away into city-wide adventure. I bought Hunter Thompson’s satire of ’70s America, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and read it straight through, sitting all night at the counter in Hunt’s Donuts at Mission and 20th.
My next trip back to City Lights, I climbed the stairway above the front counter cash register and in the quiet room up there, devoured Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. But my bible at the time was Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. The tales of Doc the marine biologist, and Mack, the king of the bums, mythically reflected the adventures I was having in San Francisco. All of these books were spellbinders, opening up in vivid ways ideas of life beyond the world I knew.
Back downstairs, in the philosophy section, I was reading Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil, which left me dumbfounded. What the hell? I would have loved to go beyond that duality, but I didn’t get it. I was struggling, but enjoyed the aphorisms anyway. Martin Buber’s I & Thou—which I was led to believe by a writer named Stephen Pickering had been one of Dylan’s favorites—was about the quest for God. I reached, tried to understand, didn’t get so far. But it was fascinating. I was willing to know more, and that was a start. Not “getting it” was sometimes a major piece of my bookstore education, as I tried to come to terms with concepts that were beyond me. Anyway, I spent a lot of time in there, sometimes even nodded off, but the City Lights staff never pushed me out.
After joining a rock and roll band, I moved to Los Angeles in ’76. My favorite bookstore down there eventually became Dutton’s, where I became friends with a poet, the late Scott Wannberg, and once again spent a lot of afternoons hanging out reading, and talking, though I didn’t quite have the time for that I’d had before.
I’m back in San Francisco now, after years of living in Southern California, and I’m happy to report that City Lights is booming. With online book sales and high rents shutting down bookstores almost daily, that is quite an accomplishment. I still make a pilgrimage there, going up to the poetry room, which is, without wanting to get too saccharine about it, like a visit to a sanctuary, a peaceful spot where life can be appreciated and contemplated, and important and beautiful voices can be heard.
I went there for the 60th anniversary of the store, walked upstairs, and there was the man himself, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 94 years old, pouring champagne for well-wishers and enjoying the day. I had a copy of his new book Time Of Useful Consciousness and I asked him if he would please autograph it. I took the opportunity to thank him for the poetry, as well as the store, for allowing me to read my way through it, in the ’70s.
“I used to go up in that room above the front door, and read. I was homeless at the time, and I want to thank you for your hospitality. Sometimes I’d even fall asleep up there. You and the staff were always so kind. I feel like I got a lot of my education here.”
“Ah yes” he replied, “That was the science fiction room.”