I’m standing in the main section of City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco on my January visit, not knowing where to begin. Turning a full circle on my feet, spines of books fly across my visual field.  Then, in the midst of it all, I spot a tempting looking armchair. So almost at random, I pluck a small, innocuous volume about San Francisco from a low shelf and sit down to read. It’s by Andrea Ponsi, an Italian architect who lived here for many years. Ponsi has written quirky observations of his favourite spots in the city and illustrated them with beautiful pen and ink impressions. Flicking through the book, I notice a piece on …City Lights Booksellers.

On entering this bookshop, I’d had the distinct impression of crossing into another dimension, perhaps due to the oddly angled walls (the building is a triangle). City Lights has been home to writers and poets since the 1950s. Images of co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who turned 100 in March, reinforce a sense of living history. I’m not a witchy-poo type of person but there is a creative energy that is spine tingling, as though I am physically in the presence of those literary giants of the last seven decades.

Now ensconced in the armchair, I read of Ponsi crossing ‘the sacred threshold’ of City Lights, an awe-inspiring moment eerily similar to my own. The parallels continue. He writes: ‘I sit right down on an isolated chair in the middle of the shelves…Hanging on the wall is a street sign with the name in Italian: “via Ferlinghetti”.’ I am sitting on that same isolated chair. Looking up from the book, I see the Ferlinghetti street sign on the wall. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Of all the books I could have pulled from the shelves I’ve chosen the one that is narrating my own experience in real time. It feels like a Candid Camera moment and I want to glance around to see if I’ve been set up.

If I continue to read, I’ll be able to see into my future, given that the next paragraph is about the poetry room upstairs and the rocking chair by the window. ‘Come to San Francisco,’ writes Ponsi, ‘go into City Lights, up to the second floor…Try it. All you have to do is rock, without saying anything, without writing.’

I do try it. I climb the stairs and sit in the chair by the window. Ponsi goes on to portray the challenge of capturing this city in words. ‘It is its time, the time that lasts a second and the time that you can never say is over.’ Again I, the non-witchy-poo person, feel a thrill. His words describe exactly the sense I have that in this room, in this special bookstore the past and present actually co-exist.

 San Francisco

A map of Perceptions

by Andrea Ponsi

University of Virginia Press, 2015

* City Lights Booksellers was rescued from permanent closure (due to COVID 19) in April this year, thanks to a GoFundMe program.

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