Book Box | Bakeries, bookstores, and beat poetry: A literary odyssey through San Francisco - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | Bakeries, bookstores, and beat poetry: A literary odyssey through San Francisco

Apr 21, 2024 12:23 AM IST

A city transforms, a bookstore vanishes, but hope flourishes in hidden gems and rebellious verses.

Dear Reader,

City Lights Books, San Francisco(Author) PREMIUM
City Lights Books, San Francisco(Author)

San Francisco is rainy when we land. It’s been four years since we last visited, but like old-time lovers, we are hoping nothing has changed. It’s wishful thinking; so much of the world has changed since 2020. Even our hotel at the Fisherman’s Wharf has a new name, having been bought over by a Spanish hotel chain.

The day after, we set out early, starting at Pier 39 and going all the way along the seafront to the Golden Gate Bridge. We pass the Boudin bread shop with its heady smell of sourdough bread baking. I think about Sourdough by Robin Sloan. It’s the story of a robotics engineer called Lois who codes all day with no time for anything else. One day, she finds a flyer for takeout. It’s from a hole-in-the-wall neighbourhood joint run by two immigrants who have to shut shop and suddenly leave the country. But before they go, they bequeath their sourdough bread starter to her. Lois begins to bake, with startling results. Sourdough is witty and feel-good. Reading it made me want to bake bread. Author Robin Sloan lives here in the Bay Area and he worked at Twitter before becoming a writer, maybe this is why the vibe of the book feels so authentic.

Sourdough(Author)
Sourdough(Author)

After the Boudin bread shop, we walk past Bayview restaurants selling signature clam chowder, and the souvenir shops full of model boats, anchors and glass globes with the island of Alcatraz. The path curves by a ship-shaped nautical museum and a beach, and climbs upwards till it descends steeply to Fort Mason.

“Do you think the Readers Shop is still open?” my husband asks me.

It’s the bookstore where we usually stop to browse and buy and take a break before we go on. The store has an amazing selection of off-beat books.

The road to Fort Mason, San Francisco(Author)
The road to Fort Mason, San Francisco(Author)

But when we get there, the bookstore is bare. The large glass windows show empty rooms and a "for rent" sign hangs outside. We wander disconsolately, while I turn to the Internet. And find a post from four years ago – “We want you to know that it was a difficult decision to shutter our iconic bookstore… the Fort Mason lease required us to commit to an interior renovation costing a minimum of $50,000 and closure for several months to contribute to Fort Mason’s vision of upscaling its campus,” said the store founders.

Oh well. Cities change. In Mumbai, where we live, so many of the neighbourhood shops crammed with books, the tiny stores where you could sell your old books or borrow or buy, have slowly died out.

The sun recedes behind clouds. It starts to drizzle, then stops and the sun is out again. It’s like the light in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Changing Lights, from his San Francisco Poems collection. Here are a few lines for you:

And then the halcyon late mornings

after the fog burns off

and the sun paints white houses

with the sea light of Greece

with sharp clean shadows

making the town look like

it had just been painted

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet, he was a publisher who dared to publish edgy writing, like Howl by Allen Ginsberg, a poem put on trial for being obscene and explicit. Ferlinghetti also founded a bookstore.

It is here we turn, walking to the City Lights Bookstore. Packed into its three-storeyed rooms is a whole universe of rebellion, of beat poetry, music, mystery and drama – a rich counterculture of decades of dissent. It’s uplifting.

City Lights Bookstore.(Author)
City Lights Bookstore.(Author)

City Lights Bookstore was where I discovered Robin Sloan. I found his book Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore here. The protagonist is a laid-off young techie called Clay, who goes to work at a quaint bookstore. Here he encounters a secret society and a dark plot to destroy books and reading. But fear not, as in the fantastic and feel-good plot, Clay brings in a rich investor and a girl from Google and they work together, using technology to rescue books and reading.

At the bookstore, I look around the store for advance copies of Reading the Room ​— the memoir of City Lights bookseller Paul Yamazaki. There’s something so comforting and compelling about hearing from people who sell books. I can’t wait to read this one, it has stories of readers, writers, poets and publishers like Sonny Mehta.

That’s all from San Francisco. And because April is National Poetry Writing Month in the US, and because there is no one quite like Vikram Seth, here’s a postscript from The Golden Gate:

They wander for a while, not saying

Too much, then stroll out on the pier

By Old Fort Pont..

..While high above the Golden Gate,

Nestling the Fort, in unornate

Magnificence across the acres

Of whitecapped sea, the golden span

Hangs for the world to hymn and scan

For more collections of poems, there is also A Poem a Day. And until next week, happy reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

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