For our second post inspired by Ajax Penumbra’s San Francisco, we first thought we’d put up some photographs of City Lights Bookstore from 1969 . . . but, well, it looks exactly the same. Then, digging a little deeper into the relevant passage of Ajax Penumbra 1969, we realized we had skipped over the real paydirt:
The visitor canvasses Chinatown, learns to say bookstore in Cantonese: shu dian? He braves the haze of Haight Street, speaks to an anarchist selling books on a blanket in Golden Gate Park. He crosses the bay to Cody’s and Cal, ventures south to Kepler’s and Stanford. He inquires at City Lights, but the man behind the register, whose name is Shig, shakes his head. “Never heard of him, man. Never heard of him.” He sells the visitor a copy of Howl instead.
Shig. Shig Murao.
Shig Murao is best known as the City Lights Bookstore clerk who was arrested on June 3, 1957, when he sold a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl to a couple of undercover cops. The arrest and subsequent trial—in which nine literary experts famously testified to the poem’s artistic significance—solidified San Francisco’s status as the epicenter of ‘60s counterculture and marked City Lights as the home of the Beats. But that’s hardly the full story…
Shig was hired by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as a bookseller at City Lights in 1953. He was paid in books for the first couple months—and went on to run the store for more than two decades thereafter. He was a genuine eccentric who became a kind of ringmaster in San Francisco’s intellectual life—at a time when San Francisco’s intellectual life was very, very interesting—he was a close to friend to Allen Ginsberg (naturally) and at the center of a mind-boggling swirl of world-changing writers, artists, thinkers, agitators, charlatans (to be sure), and provocateurs. Perhaps his most obscure—but hardly his least interesting—legacy is Shig’s Review.
Here he is around 1969, presiding over a store not far—in location or in spirit—from a certain establishment featured in (spoiler alert?) both Ajax Penumbra 1969 and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
But his sartorial influence on the world o’ Penumbra is perhaps clearest here, seven years after Ajax’s seminal first visit:
Lest you get all mopey about missing the California glory days of Beats and Hippies and Booksellers in Capes, know that FSG Originals’ hero Paul Yamazaki more than lives up to Shig’s legacy at City Lights today—and that events like this one still go on in the very same store. OK, you actually missed that glory day, too, but this one is right around the corner—don’t live to regret missing it!
Not-to-be-missed further reading about City Lights and Shig Murao:
• This is it—probably largely based on your reaction to the collage at the top of this post, you will either collapse in awe and lose hours of your life to this site – or you won’t get it at all. (As will be obvious as soon as you click through, all of the art and many of the details in this post come from this awesome site. The collage at the top is by Janet Richards, circa 1970; the color photo is by Arnold Newman, and originally appeared in Holiday magazine in 1970; the cape photo is by Carol Davis.)
• There’s not really reason for a second entry, except that Zyzzyva published a condensed version of the above, and it’s always worth linking to Zyzzyva.