Literary Cities: I found my art in San Francisco

Long time, no blog. Let’s just say that induction week was hectic – exciting and fascinating – but hectic! Welcome to the world of publishing?

It was actually these inductions that inspired some of the forthcoming entries on this blog about literary cities, with a number of the activities being walks around London to explore its bookish past. Believe me, there’s plenty to write about!

But first up, we’re heading west to San Francisco. Books may not be the first thing that pops into your mind when thinking about the city (if you’re like me, thoughts of San Francisco conjure images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, hills, cable cars, hippies…). But, home to many of the writers of the ‘Beat Generation’ – amongst others – it is fully deserving of the title ‘literary city’. And, also, is just worth a visit, book-focused or not.

San Francisco

As far as my reluctant reader of a boyfriend knows, I didn’t intentionally book a literary themed hotel for our stay in San Francisco. It just so happened that the Hotel Rex was central, offering a good discount, and I’d liked the photo on the website of the old-fashioned awning marking its entrance. Of course I didn’t know anything about the walls lined with dark-oak bookshelves, which groaned under the weight of the musty, plain-covered hardbacks used to bring you the bill in their restaurant. Judging by the (well-practised) eye-roll I was given when entering the lobby, I don’t think my ‘just a happy coincidence’ argument was too convincing. I just hope he wasn’t expecting that to be our only encounter with books in the city.
I’ve got to admit that prior to landing in the bay (not literally) my knowledge of San Francisco’s literary heritage was limited to a vague recollection that many of the Beat Generation settled there in the 1950s, with Jack Kerouac being one of the more famous figures to haunt its bars while writing On The Road. Though the guidebook did offer a small clue to its literary culture; apparently more books are bought, library books are stored and writers reside here than any other US city. Recent residents include Dave Eggers, Isabel Allende and Amy Tan. But I was soon to discover that this is a city where you can find references to literature at (almost) every corner. No, really; where Columbus meets Broadway a sculpture of open books flying beneath wires is strung across the street.

One of the must-sees for any bookworm is Jack Kerouac Alley. A sidestreet near North Beach, it isn’t quite paved with gold, but the tiles containing quotes from the city’s authors (including John Steinbeck and Maya Angelou) and Chinese proverbs contain some treasures. A personal favourite? ‘In the company of best friends, there is never enough wine.’ But possibly one of the most photographed is an ode to the city by the man himself – ‘The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great’.

The renovation of this alleyway was actually thanks to the owner of another of the city’s literary landmarks, City Lights Bookstore. Sitting at the entrance of the ‘alley’, the store – owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – shot to prominence in 1957 after defending their right to ‘wilfully and lewdly print’ Allan Ginsberg’s influential book of poetry Howl and Other Poems. The shop has been a hangout for poets, alternative thinkers and booklovers ever since. Recent years have seen it bring in books to cater for a more mainstream (tourist) crowd, but it’s never quite lost its radical roots. For me, the store’s USP is that it’s also a publishing house, known for producing progressive works.

Jack Kerouac isn’t the only famous resident who lives on through San Francisco’s streets. California’s first poet laureate is commemorated by Ina Coolbraith Park, and Sterling Park is named after ‘King of Bohemia’ George Sterling. City landmarks also provide the backdrop for many a book. Dashiell Hammett’s former office in the James Flood Building at Union Square later featured in The Maltese Falcon. The infamous high-security prison Alcatraz is the subject of many a book. The prisoners may be long gone, but wandering around the empty rock will still send shivers down your spine; the unoccupied cells are brought to life by the audio tour (included in the price of entry), which is narrated by the haunting voices of former inmates and wardens.

San Francisco is a walking city (probably should have read the guidebook more carefully before packing my shoes), which also means there are plenty of excuses to stop for refreshments. But there’s no need to take a break from the literary theme by doing so. At North Beach, where the smells of coffee and Italian herbs will get your stomach rumbling, step into Caffe Trieste where Francis Ford Copolla drafted The Godfather script. John’s Grill in Union Square was Dashiell Hammett’s favourite bar, and there’s a statuette of the Maltese Falcon upstairs. Modern day ‘speakeasy’, Café du Nord on Market Street, is a hangout for today’s crowd of writers; just hope you don’t fit in too well with the regulars – musicians and novelists are often coerced on stage to give impromptu performances.

Alternatively there are plenty of places that feel like you’ve just walked into the pages of a novel. There was a 45 minute queue for breakfast at Dottie’s True Blue Café, but it was worth sitting (well, standing) it out to experience a proper American diner; no plastic red chairs and fake 50’s memorabilia here, just plenty (and I mean plenty!) of gorgeous buttermilk pancakes and maple syrup. In the evening, The Gold Dust Lounge off of Union Square is like walking into a saloon left over from the gold rush years – perhaps because the decor allegedly dates from then.

At the risk of sounding like a travel writer (or, perhaps worse, holiday sales rep), you can see why many would find inspiration from San Francisco, whether in the colonial architecture, the historic cable cars, or the streets so steep cars park at 90 degrees. And then there’s the literary personalities past and present that seem to permeate every neighbourhood, bar and park. It would be unfair to my boyfriend to say that I left all of my heart in San Francisco, but it will always own a piece of the book-loving, wannabe writer part of it.

Photo credits:

City Lights Bookstore: Ron Brown at Everywhere magazine

James Flood Building: Wally Gobetz

North Beach: San Francisco Travel

Gold Dust Lounge: Rachel Bowden

(Books, Jack Kerouac Alley & Golden Gate Bridge – mine)


About Amy

22-year-old aspiring publisher/bestselling writer/wooden bookshop owner (like the one in Notting Hill). Beyond books, I like travelling, kickboxing, Sex and the City, the theatre (plays and musicals), chocolate and wine (often together), taking photographs (they're not good enough to classify this as 'photography' - though I also like looking at other people's), Flight of the Conchords, owning pretty dresses, and posters of vintage book covers.
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