City Lights Books : An Interview with Paul Yamazaki (Principal Buyer at the Bookshop)

City Lights is an independent bookstore-publisher in San Francisco, California, which specializes in world literature, the arts, and…

City Lights is an independent bookstore-publisher in San Francisco, California, which specializes in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics.

City Lights Books
If any city in American deserves the title of home of the Beat Generation, it is San Francisco. While New York can…

Photograph Credits : American Book Seller Association

In 2001, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made City Lights an official historic or notable landmark — the first time this had been conceded to a business, as opposed to a building — commending the association for “creating a fundamental impact in the literary and cultural/social development and advancement of San Francisco and the country.” It recognized the bookstore as “a landmark or milestone that attracts thousands of book lovers from all over the world because of its solid atmosphere of elective culture and expression”.

I had a wonderful & insightful conversation and Q&A session with Paul Yamazaki over a Zoom Call about Bookselling Business Ecosystem. When and how City Lights Books came into existence , how it became such a historical landmark. What was the mission and vision Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin had projected when they founded this book heaven.

Photograph Credits : Reuters

Paul Yamazaki is the Principal /Chief buyer at City Lights Booksellers, where he has been a bookseller since 1970. Yamazaki has served on the board of directors of several literary and community arts organizations; among them are the Council of Literary Magazines & Presses, Small Press Distribution, and the Kearny Street Workshop. Yamazaki was a jury member for Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists 2 and was on the jury for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He is a recipient of the Litquake Barbary Coast Award.

Paul Yamazaki
Paul Yamazaki has been a bookseller since 1970. He has been the principal buyer at City Lights Booksellers for more…

Excerpts from the Interview :-

Q1) When was City Lights started and how did it become such an institution?

Paul : City Lights Books was setup in 1953, so we just completed our 67th year. It was established by Lawrence Ferlinghetti , a notable poet in the United States. He added a publishing branch in 1955 and one of the first five books City Lights published was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl And Other Poems, which set up us on the public and worldwide front. Lawrence was at Ginsberg’s first public reading of Howl and sent him a telegraph that very night saying that this was the launch of a incredible poetic voice and asked when he could get the manuscript(original copy). Lawrence knew it was controversial yet he didn’t step back. A difficult situation accompanied the publication, he and the store manager were arrested for selling a so-called obscene book. It became a landmark trial for freedom of expression.

City Lights published the seminal poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg and became a gathering place for bohemians and literati.

City Lights Books
Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights is one of the few truly great…

The Bookshop was the revelation of Peter D. Martin, who moved from New York City to San Francisco in the 1940s to teach sociology. He previously utilized City Lights — in respect to the Chaplin film — in 1952 as the title of a magazine, publishing early work by such key Bay Area writers as Philip Lamantia, Pauline Kael, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Ferlinghetti himself, as “Lawrence Ferling”. After a year, Martin utilized the name to set up the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S., at the time when it seemed like a daring idea or thought.

In 1953, as Ferlinghetti was strolling past the Artigues Building, he saw Martin out front hanging up a sign that announced a “Pocket Bookshop.” He acquainted himself as a contributor to Martin’s magazine City Lights, and disclosed to him that he always wanted to own/run a bookstore. After a short time he and Martin consented to a partnership. Each man invested five hundred dollars.

City Lights Books
A prominent voice of the wide-open poetry movement that began in the 1950s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes poetry…

Q2) City Lights is a notable landmark, a living tribute to the Beat Generation, and a cozy space for the San Francisco literary community. How do these things influence the curation or selection of books for the store?

Photograph Credits : Charley Plymell

Paul : Lawrence Ferlinghetti has always thought of City Lights as a lighthouse of possibility and a place of refuge to think about the long skyline of possible future and prospects. He has always felt it was imperative that City Lights be a place of lively stillness and energetic quietness where the browser/reader could scrutinize the racks, select a few books and read them at one’s own pace. Between these wide banks of resistance and possibility lie City Lights’ curatorial mission to incorporate works that impel a disagreeing creative mind. This has been set up over many years of thought , conversation and practice among the whole staff of City Lights who, together, took an interest in the selection of titles that discover a spot on our racks.

Q3) What do you love most about being a bookseller? What do you think is the role of an independent bookstore, or the role of booksellers at an independent bookstore?

Paul : The independent bookshop in the U.S. has its underlying foundations in a post second world war internationalism. City Lights, Keplers, Cody’s in the San Francisco Bay Area and the 8th Street Bookshop in New York City were set up in the decade after the end of the second world war. The 8th Street Bookshop and City Lights were also publishers of revolutionary poets and artists often called the Beats. Roy Kepler was a conservative war resister who was in imprisoned by the United States Government during the Second World War. After the war Kepler became a significant social and political figure in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kepler established the book shop as well.Many of the bookstores that emerged between the 1960s -1970s were influenced by the spirit of the radical stores. Over the past decades the number of books being published annually has increased tremendously. Independent booksellers are able to put the right book in the right reader’s hands. Readers are appreciative of this service that we provide.

Q4) How did you associate with the store?

Paul : I was involved in political/social activism and I was imprisoned for a half year. So as to come out a month sooner, I needed someone to say that they would employ me. I had a companion who went up to the head supervisor/General Manager of the Bookstore and enlightened him concerning me. I got a job and have been working here ever since.

Q5) As the principal book buyer, can you shed some light to our readers on the process by which books gets handpicked ? What considerations do you keep in mind while curating the bookstore?

Paul : Selecting or curating books for the bookshop is in itself a specialty or a craft and in my 50 years in the business numerous things have changed/evolved, however the basics of bookselling remains the same: reading, curiosity and conversation. These lie at the core of what I do. Furthermore, to the question, how would you select books for City Lights, I would state I look for the answer reading as much as possible and having conversations with independent booksellers around the country, with editors at publishing houses, large and small, with publisher sales representatives or agents and with my colleagues at City Lights. Here, the discussion about what books to read and what books will be represented on our shelves starts with the staff. Every individual from the City Lights team participates in the choice over what front list and archive titles we will offer.

A continuous discourse or communication with editors is another key aspect. We converse and brainstorm with editors to find out about new author’s writings or their books, thus, permits our staff to be early readers . We see this sort of commitment and discussion as fundamental to what we do.

Q6) Bookstores are cultural platforms in any society and community. They act as a home away from home or an escape from reality to bibliophiles, there is obviously some sense of belongingness. It is somewhat of a sacred place to people, especially to readers. Do you agree with this?

Paul : Yes. I agree with you , bookstores are cultural hubs in any community, central to the fabric of shared values and interests that make towns and cities vital. They lend character to a place and give residents and book lovers a sense of belonging. They often are as central to some people’s private lives as local houses of worship or their homes.

Majority of the businesses exist just to accomplish triple bottom line: they’re structured purely to be an environment in which a transaction happens between the buyer and the seller.

Artwork Credits : Bob Eckstein

Bookstores — particularly independent ones — are unique and special in their own way. Although revenues are significant (maintaining profit margin is vital for their survival as profits are razor thin), this is basically result of an altogether nobler point: to be a peaceful and safe haven where readers can communicate ideas with an evangelical zeal through words and pictures.

“A bookstore is somewhat like an ocean — it may look the same but it is always changing if you are a careful observer ”says Paul.

Q7) COVID -19 restrictions now have independent bookstores caught in an agonizing situation: Just when there’s a huge audience looking for something to read, they’ve had to close their doors. Many have found creative ways of dealing with the challenge. Could you tell us about the virtual or digital opportunities during the lockdown, and how far the Bookstore team efforts have been successful?

Paul : A lot changed in March when we all got thrown into a pandemic — it almost felt like we were all characters in an apocalyptic sci-fi novel. As I have mentioned before independent bookselling is not a hugely profitable business to begin with, and times of crisis only further strain booksellers’ resources. The reality is that the inability of customers to interact with authors at readings and to receive signed copies of books has a substantial and negative effect on book sales. While increased online sales compensate for some of this reduced revenue, the fact is that overall sales have substantially decreased. We’ve done a number of virtual events with writers and literary scholars and have maintained our relationship with our community of authors while keeping the lines of communication open with our bevy of regular customers, who have ventured up to help us so that we can barely offer our thanks and appreciation.

City Lights Books
City Lights hosts weekly events with authors from across the publishing world. With our store closed until further…

Q8) Do you have any advice for independent bookstore owners on surviving after Covid?

Paul : I think bookshops around the world have to remain relevant to our communities. Make sure you have a strong online presence. I think what works is to keep doing what we do best, which is achieved by having staff who know their books inside out and can provide personalized service and help readers create a personal connection to a book, something that you can’t get from Amazon. Independent bookstores can engage with their communities and local customers.

Q9) Any trends or predictions for the bookselling industry? Are there any plans for future that you would like to share with our readers here?

Paul : The contribution or job of speculative fiction is to “…shift the reader’s mind, from the lazy, apprehensive habit of thinking that the manner in which we live currently is the only way individuals can live.” These lines grow the possibility of our own lives and furthermore helps us develop compassion, openness and understanding for a different person’s life.

Books have become a joy, an escape or a break, a friend in desolate spots, a guide and an excursion. I cannot belittle the imperative job they have played in saving psychological wellness in troublesome circumstances of so many readers I have met over the years and the delight they have given them in their everyday life. This is the thing I might want to share and this is what independent bookstores can do — be a safe space to access various perspectives and different ways of thinking, but also a path to find your self and your own uniqueness contemplated in the books.

Thank you all for reading and a big thanks to Paul Yamazaki for collaborating in today’s post!

It’s a pleasure!

Video Credits : Bloomsbury Publishing

If any of my readers here , wish to know more about the bookstore and their work. Do open the links mentioned below . They have a wonderful informative , articulated and well-curated website.

Website :

Facebook :

Instagram :

Twitter :