San Fran­cisco’s book beat

The bay city has a thriv­ing lit­er­ary scene

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - BRIAN TURNER

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

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