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A City of Two Tales: City Lights and McSweeney's Continue to Find Room on the Shelf 

Wednesday, Dec 11 2013

This was the scene on Valencia Street on a recent Sunday: The sun was out. The air was mild. A temperate November day, of the sort that reminds you you're on the West Coast. But not in Seattle. Not in L.A. San Francisco — the Mission, to be exact. On this day, there was some activity at McSweeney's, the publishing company founded by Dave Eggers.

Now, it seems a little silly, in a San Francisco newspaper, to say "the publishing company founded by Dave Eggers," as if anyone reading this could possibly be asking, "What's McSweeney's?" If anything, they'd be more likely to ask that question as a hostile joke, a protest of the company's "continuing efforts to extend a tentacle into every cranny of human experience," to use its own drolly and shrewdly self-conscious language. (That particular clause comes from the McSweeney's iOS app.) Drolly and shrewdly self-conscious language, of course, was a thing from the beginning. Remember when Eggers wrote a meta-memoir self-consciously called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, whose prefatory acknowledgments section included the proviso that "while the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality"? Of course you do. Well, even though Eggers' newest book is called The Circle, and it's about, among other things, how Internet culture has so weirdly turned self-consciousness inside out, he's come a long way, and so has McSweeney's.

During normal business hours, the front of McSweeney's office is home to Scholar Match, daily putting into practice the great Eggersian idea to crowdsource college scholarships. But on this day it had been reconfigured as an improvised retail space, a pop-up bookshop. The resident McSweeneyans, in T-shirts identifying them as such, were young and skinny and fresh-faced, sincere, gently solicitous. Customers studied their offerings intently, as McSweeney's books, being also visually rich art objects, tend to invite special scrutiny, and even the vaguely predatory gaze of the collector. McSweeney's books tend to be written by authors whose names you know, or should, and to exude a brainy kind of cool. Be they funny, or sincere, the publications — including periodicals, like The Believer magazine and more esoteric fare like the "DVD magazine" Wholphin — tend to reflect an aura of intelligent virtue, of good-humored engagement with the whole wide world. Anyway, the store was down to the last copy of Lemony Snicket's Christmas story, The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. The variously autographed Best Of McSweeney's, a handsome hefty new tome of 624 pages, had all been sold, but on the sidewalk just outside the door, a woman sat in a chair reading from it aloud.

This week, the company celebrates its 15th anniversary with a party Dec. 14 at Swedish American Hall. As a way of ramping up to this event, McSweeney's also has launched "the most successful crowdfunding campaign of all time. Maybe. Percentage-wise." The goal was to raise $15. As of this writing, with less than a week to go in the campaign, the goal had been exceeded by 144,733 percent.

And isn't that just like McSweeney's? Still precocious after all these years, but (remember the college scholarships?) the Eggers empire has been nothing if not generous. McSweeney's may help shape the culture of the Valencia corridor, but it remains at heart a small independent publisher. Of books. Which is not an easy thing to be today. They have some resources, but not others. Your support does help. Pledge $5,000, they'll put out a children's book, surely an intelligent and adorable and beautiful one, starring your own kids.

Across the street, children frolicked in the Mission Pool playground. A tour group of some kind had amassed and was hanging around outside the gallery window at building No. 826, which is home to a McSweeney's-affiliated nonprofit tutoring center and writing workshop, and also a pirate store, in which lavishly illustrated pirate-themed artworks were on this day displayed. Someone hoisted an iPhone and snapped a few photos. Who wants to come here, and who can afford to, has varied over the years. But there's always a scene on Valencia Street. It's just one of those streets. Certainly McSweeney's is a big part of the reason why.

This was the scene on Columbus Avenue on a recent Sunday: The sun was out. The air was mild. A temperate November day, of the sort that reminds you you're on the West Coast. But not in Seattle. Not in L.A. San Francisco — North Beach, to be exact. Anyway, on this day, there was some activity at City Lights, the bookstore and publishing company co-founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

You know where this is going. No one around here ever asks, "What's City Lights?" Hell, what isn't City Lights? Remember when Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, in 1956, and then endured an obscenity trial on its behalf the following year, which also was the year Jack Kerouac's On the Road came out? Of course you do. Those books might well have provided your first notion of what San Francisco really means, even if you are a little embarrassed to admit it now. Well, the Beat legacy still is a part of the place, and Ferlinghetti still is around — mostly in the form of hand-painted, all-caps signage he's placed throughout the store. "WELCOME," says one. "HAVE A SEAT AND READ A BOOK." The shelves teemed with lovingly curated local and international literature.

America's first all-paperback bookstore, City Lights still stays open until midnight every day. Undeniably, it's a community hub. It's also a publishing company, partly supported by a nonprofit foundation. Through a combination of high visibility, Beat nostalgia, general alignment with so-called "Bay Area values," and inviting fortitude, it has endured across decades and 200 published books.

Across the street in one direction, the swaying tranquility of a live seven-piece band of traditional Chinese instruments; in the other, the greasy throb of live blues. A few wayfarers, visitors from another country, stopped to take in the scene, which also included City Lights' Beat history window display. Someone hoisted an iPhone and snapped a few photos. Who wants to come here, and who can afford to, has varied over the years. But there is always a scene on Columbus Avenue. It's just one of those avenues. Certainly City Lights is a big part of the reason why.

City Lights too had a milestone anniversary in 2013: 60 years as a bookstore. (The publishing company began in 1955, two years after the store opened.)

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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