San Francisco’s book beat
The bay city has a thriving literary scene
HAS the traditional atlas lost its way? Or has Rebecca Solnit’s recent Infinite City: ASan Francisco Atlas reinvented it?
Solnit’s 22 maps of inner San Francisco chart the invisible borders of butterfly habitats, rival gangs and gay and ethnic zones. She also details cafes, Zen centres, early-opening bars, cinemas (vanished and extant), where beat poet Allen Ginsberg first recited Howl in the 1950s, and the city’s Monterey cypresses. It also serves as a compass to this laid-back city’s bohemian psyche and distinctive sense of place.
Solnit points out that as early as 1853, San Francisco had 40 bookshops and, despite Silicon Valley’s proximity, San Franciscans remain militantly loyal to traditional books and their city’s profusion of independent bookshops.
Infinite City was published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (the first US museum to mount a solo Jackson Pollock exhibition) and the annual Litquake, which celebrates the shaky city’s beguilingly tolerant mindset and literary heritage. Litquake’s week-long readings and events are held in cafes, bars, bookshops, parks, tattoo parlours and a cathedral, and even include a writing tutorial with inmates at San Quentin prison.
San Franciscans are proud of their left-of-centre heritage and Litquake is more a celebration of the city’s literary legacy — Jack London, the beats, HaightAshbury, Amy Tan — than a talkfest of imported, jetlagged authors.
Lit Crawl, Litquake’s seismic finale, is held on the last evening: a 31/ 2-hour program of feisty interactive readings, literary quizzes and discussions in bars, cafes, pedestrian alleys, laundromats and a police station, all within a short walk of each other in the Mission District.
At emblematic beat shrine City Lights Books (horn-rimmed sunglasses are mandatory), on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Jack Kerouac Alley, the lit-pilgrim should check out Paul Madonna’s surreal guide to the city’s zeitgeist, All Over Coffee, a sketchbook of ‘‘sideways’’ cameos in ink-wash drawings of San Francisco’s eccentric architecture and streetscapes, captioned with poetry, haiku or overheard conversations.
Madonna also illustrated the San Francisco Literary Map ($US7), an artful and witty guide to 70 local bookshops and literary backdrops. For the neo-beat tourist there’s Bill Morgan’s meticulous guide The Beat Generation in San Francisco. If you want to remain tourist-incognito, there’s the not-for-tourists NFT San Francisco 2011, an anti-guidebook guide to the city’s hidden gems and easyon-the-wallet shopping.
Take your map to the Vesuvio Bar, Kerouac’s old hangout opposite City Lights, where Jack first hit the road to dissolving his brilliant mind and its torrent of spontaneous prose in alcohol. Browse the literary map over a coffee (or glass of zinfandel) and plan your lit-pilgrimage. It should include Pinkerton detective-turned crime writer Dashiell Hammett’s street (‘‘Hammett,’’ according to Raymond Chandler, ‘‘got murder out of the vicar’s rose garden and back to the people who are really good at it’’). And hobo sailor turned writer Jack London’s birthplace, or the pad where Hunter S. Thompson wrote Hell’s Angels and his bikie visitors so upset his neighbours.
To connect with your inner activist, stroll to Bound Together Bookstore and Anarchist Collective at 1369 Haight St, or time your visit for a revolutionary film night. Compared to the radical Bound Together, the leftie Bolarium Bookstore, upstairs at 2141 Mission St, seems as conservative as the Melbourne Club. A laconic staff member describes their specialisation as ‘‘proletarianisms and history of Californian communism’’. The same building houses bookshops that specialise in first-edition novels, antiquarian legal books and science fiction.
For lapsed Marxists and bornagain capitalists, there’s the nearby Ritual Coffee Roaster & Cafe at 1026 Valencia St; despite its stylised hammer and sickle wall mural, this is a seething hotbed of venture capitalism. When black T-shirted digeratipreneurs look up from their laptops to sip latte, their buzz is about gizmos, widgets and start-ups for revolutionary apps.
In contrast, a couple of blocks away at Borderlands Cafe (no music; no Wi-Fi) at 870 Valencia St, students study, readers read, browsers leaf through magazines and literati catch up by chatting.
If San Francisco’s extravagant architecture’s your thing, browse the towering Piranesi-like book- shelves of William Stout Architectural Books at 804 Montgomery St. San Francisco’s cuisine is like its literature: fresh, innovative and deliciously local. Omnivore Books on Food at 3885a Cesar Chavez St has a calorific range of new and second-hand cookbooks, including 19th-century rarities, and regularly hosts talks by Californian food and wine gurus.
Feeling like a break from over- caffeinated San Francisco? Then hire a car and hit the road for the two-hour drive to California’s other great literary destination, John Steinbeck’s Salinas, his birthplace and the locale immortalised in East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. The Nobel laureate’s boyhood home, an elegant Queen Anne house at 132 Central Ave, is now a lunchtime restaurant with a fixed price menu specialising in Salinas Valley produce. After lunch, visit Salinas’s National Steinbeck Centre at 1 Main St for an overview of the writer’s life, creativity and influence.
Monterey, former rough-andtumble sardine-cannery town and setting of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday (‘‘the day after Lousy Wednesday, which is one of those days that are just naturally bad’’), is 30km from Salinas and much altered by development.
‘‘ They fish for tourists now,’’ Steinbeck observed in his 1962 memoir Travels with Charley. What still remains stunning is the drive along Monterey’s sublime coastline and the seascape that nearly lured Steinbeck from his writing career to marine biology.
Finally, before departure, buy a Californian in-flight digestif to read on your homeward flight — say, a copy of Spade & Archer, Joe Gores’s prequel to The Maltese Falcon, written in 2009 (with the approval of Dashiell Hammett’s daughter) in Hammett’s chiselled deadpan style. Brian Turner is a former manager of the Art Gallery of NSW bookshop and author of two books.
Emblematic beat generation shrine City Lights Books is on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Jack Kerouac Alley