Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
It feels good to be back on RealityStudio. Is this mike on?
I can always tell I am feeling under the weather when I take out my copy of the Fuck You Press Despair and I feel no joy. If I become disinterested in my book collection, it is a signal that I am slipping into a mild depression. Further proof of a case of the blues is the fact that months ago I ordered a Burroughs item and lost track of it in the flow of daily life. One way I can jumpstart a spark into my mental and physical engines is by the act of unpacking my library. So recently I decided to clean and organize my bookshelf in order to manage the clutter in my head. And lo and behold, I found, still wrapped in the mailing packaging, that long forgotten Burroughs item.
“It is somewhat rumored that William S. Burroughs, el hombre invisible, will suddenly appear” is the type of Burroughs item that in better times gets my juices flowing. A single, fragile sheet of paper, with a degree of age-toning and some slight chipping, announcing a potential reading at City Lights Bookstore. The bookseller’s catalog description posited that the flyer was from 1962, but as the question mark behind the date demonstrated, this was pure speculation. As much as I wanted that date to be true, I knew in my heart of hearts that there was no way the date was correct. The year was definitely later and, I suspected, much later. The questions concerning the date in no way put the kibosh on the sale; in fact this little literary puzzle was actually a selling point. It would be fun to research the item and reveal its mysteries.
But the hustle and bustle of everyday life intervened and the handbill just sat in my bookcase unopened. Until now. I have to admit that I had forgotten that I bought it. Looking at the package, I thought it was a Fuck You handbill, but I was pleasantly surprised to have the City Lights flyer in my hands as I was sitting Indian-style in front of my bookcase. Looking it over quickly confirmed my initial feeling that the attributed date was wrong. There seemed to be too much hype on the flyer. In 1962, even at a place like City Lights, most people would have no idea who Burroughs was. The rumors anticipating Burroughs’ arrival imply a word on the street, an interested general public, which just would not have existed in 1962. You could argue that the Grove Naked Lunch came out around this time, the Edinburgh Conference had just happened, and the interest in Burroughs was actually quite high. Good points, but this flyer suggested more than just interest. It suggested promotion, showmanship, an act. This air of the circus, the sideshow performance of “el hombre invisible” just did not exist in 1962.
I could narrow down the year rather quickly by going to Oliver Harris’s article, “The Frisco Kid He Never Returns: Naked Lunch and San Francisco” as well as some of my own research on Burroughs’ relationship with the San Francisco Renaissance, but I figured it would be much more fun to follow the clues on the flyer itself and see where they took me.
Saturday, November 4th. There are only a limited number of years in which this date and day could coincide. 1962 is not one of them. On one level, the internet is a wonderful and useful thing. There are date calculators that allow you to punch in the date and calculate the day of the week. Here is just one of the many options. November 4, 1962 was a Sunday. Further calculations reveal that 1961, 1967, 1972, and 1978 are other options for the year of the City Lights flyer.
Going back to the handbill, which was quickly created on City Lights letterhead, the address for City Lights Bookstore is listed as 261 Columbus Avenue. That location has not changed since the bookstore’s founding in 1953. Everybody knows the location of City Lights, even if they do not stop in. On a recent episode of The Layover, Anthony Bourdain walked by the City Lights storefront and acknowledged its presence. This all the while bashing San Francisco’s other institutions like Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Alcatraz, and the cable car (with which Bourdain fell in love hook, line and sinker despite himself).
In the late 1990s, I spent a fair amount of time in San Francisco working on a certain anti-trust case and, sadly, I was locked into the institutions, like Alcatraz. Dungeness crab at the Wharf, a dinner at Julius’ Castle, a drink at Vesuvio’s, dim sum in Chinatown. Typical tourist stuff. I walked around a lot but I do not know if I ever really saw San Francisco. I was excited to browse through City Lights and I spent a wonderful afternoon at the secret location of Skyline Books, but what in the hell was I thinking to never stop by Serendipity Books. In never visiting this Mecca, I violated the Sutton’s law of book collecting: If you want good books, go where the books are. With the death of Peter Howard and the closing of Serendipity, it is too late now, but back in the late 1990s, with the dot.com boom, it was something of the golden days of California bookselling. And I missed it.
During that time, I did venture into the Serendipity booth at various New York City bookfairs. On one occasion (probably later), Howard brought an entire bookshelf of Olympia Press titles. Six to seven feet of green and white. It might have been every Olympia Press title ever published. By this time I was no longer completely green as a book collector myself. I had Burroughs’ Olympia titles, the Olympia magazines, and even an Olympia Press catalog but I was looking for more Olympia Press ephemera. I was advised to stop to talk to Mr. Howard — but warned to make it quick and to the point as he did not suffer fools gladly. I mustered up my courage and practiced my spiel a couple of times and walked up to Mr. Howard sitting in his booth. I think my voice cracked as I asked him in the most confusing manner possible, which made it impossible to understand just what I was looking for, the nature of my search. He turned full around in his chair and looked me in the eye and said, “No,” and turned around. In a weird way, I was elated, because as you know from American Pickers, collecting is all about “breaking the ice.” Things were definitely frosty but I felt that if I ever got myself into his store and demonstrated my genuine interest in his books, there would be an inevitable thaw. I never made it to Serendipity, which is my loss, not just in terms of the missed books, but in the experience of browsing the store itself, an institution as much as City Lights, and in meeting Mr. Howard again.
The Bookstore and Reality TV
Speaking of American Pickers. This whole reality-show phenomenon around collecting is out of control. Antiques Roadshow, American Pickers, American Restoration, Storage Wars (California and Texas), Auction Hunters, the proliferation of pawn shows (Las Vegas, Detroit and I think I saw one in Cajun Country). I am sure there are more. In fact, a sports memorabilia dealer just started a show on Saturdays here in Baltimore. What strikes me about all these shows in just how few books are featured. Most of these TV personalities have no expertise and no interest in books or magazines. If they do come across them it is with hesitation and disgust. On Storage Wars, Darrell the Gambler came across some first editions and was genuinely befuddled (if not angered) by all the talk of condition and dust jackets when he asked a bookdealer about their value. Even my main man, Barry Weiss, got burned by an automotive racing magazine that he thought was the real McCoy at $2000. It was only a decoy and he threw it aside to collect oil drippings.
I do not get it. I have always felt that a rare bookstore would be a no-brainer for a reality show. First and foremost the independent used / rare bookshop is a dying industry that feeds off a dying technology. The fetishization of a dying industry or technology seems to be at the heart of these collecting shows. American Pickers is a clear case in point. Mike and Frank are the sucker fish that circle around the whale carcass that is American industry and manufacturing. It is no surprise that their show popped up in the wake of the collapse of Detroit and the automotive industry. Their loving appreciation (and cashing in) of an old Ford rotting forgotten in the middle of a small Iowa farm (another dying industry) restores the aura to an automotive industry that has lost its luster.
American Restoration works in the same way. Rick Dale restores classic Americana, like gas pumps, soda coolers, and other pieces that remind viewers of the days when the United States actually built things and the American economy revolved around manufactured objects. A fetish develops around that which is dying and these shows eulogize not only cars, Mom and Pop gas stations, and small-town Americana, but the once robust American economy as a whole. People have always collected, but it would not surprise me if the current craze — the fascination with collecting and the publication of guidebooks and manuals — began in the early 1970s, a time of economic and energy crisis.
The rare and used bookstore also speaks of a bygone era. As Jacques Derrida has written in Paper Machine and Archive Fever, a fetish for paper quickly developed with the predictions of the “death of print” in the wake of the digital age. In addition, the rare bookstore would obviously have the historical narrative angle present in most of these reality shows in that every book tells a story on multiple levels. The walk-in sellers provide an element of the face-to-face negotiation of Pawn Stars, as well as the appraisal elements of Antiques Roadshow. An on-location buy would highlight a book dealer’s quick instincts and immediate knowledge, like the shoot-from-the-hip assessments of Auction Hunters and Storage Wars. Then there is the atmosphere of the bookstore itself. From working at a used bookstore for two years, I can vouch for the fact that the owners, employees, and customers are all unusual characters to say the least. For example, Peter Howard’s gruff, no-shit persona is a reality show stock figure, think The Old Man from Pawn Stars.
There are opportunities for spin-offs. I have always thought a show around a working book scout would be interesting. Who would not want to see a show following Martin Stone around as he travels the world looking for rare books? This has elements of the rock star, gourmand, detective, spy, archeologist, global traveler, and astronaut of inner space. And what about record store guy, purveyor of vinyl? Who would not want to see a reality show with elements of High Fidelity, Ghost World, or Empire Records?
Interestingly, Pawn Stars has been revealed to be scripted. In fact much of reality TV has been shown to be rehearsed and staged. This digression on reality TV ties into the City Lights flyer. Like realityTV, public readings are live events, which promise authenticity and spontaneity. An opportunity to experience a writer out in the wild. Yet readings are heavily planned out and meticulously rehearsed. The magic of a Bukowski reading was that it seemed totally off the cuff, anything could happen from one moment to the next. Bukowski was unpredictable, dangerous. The Burroughs flyer implies a similar experience. Its slapdash design suggests that it was made in haste, on the spot. And it might have been, but it was for a planned event not a spontaneous one, despite the rumor that Burroughs will “suddenly appear.” If Burroughs’ appearance was truly spontaneous, there would be no flyer.
William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights (photo from ferlinghettifilm.com)
Dating the Flyer
But back to the reality of City Lights in time and space. There might not be much to gather from the City Lights Bookstore address, but the phone number is interesting. The seven digit, all-numerical phone number was implemented across the United States in 1968. So 1967 is in doubt. The address for the City Lights Publishing House, 1562 Grant Avenue, narrows the possibilities even further. The book I wish I had when I was in San Francisco is Bill Morgan’s The Beat Generation in San Francisco. Along with Beat Generation in New York: A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac’s City, it is a great travel guide and an indispensible Beat history book all in one. I find myself coming back to these two books often when researching Beat addresses and landmarks. I suspect Morgan’s Beat Altas: A State by State Guide to the Beat Generation in America is essential as well. Morgan as the Beat Livy. Can Morgan’s account of the Beat conquest of the world be far behind? (The book I would really like to see would be Iain Sinclair’s account of walking through today’s Lower East Side. What he could do with the current landscape of the city with his intimate knowledge of this location’s secret history would be astounding.).
Morgan’s book on San Francisco was unavailable in 1999, but thankfully I can pull it down from the shelf now. Morgan writes
In 1978 the brothers retired, and City Lights moved in [to the central room upstairs] making the store twice as large and as interesting. At that time, Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters moved the publishing branch back to the bookstore after a ten-year stay on upper Grant Avenue, setting up an editorial office in the basement where Ferlinghetti had worked in the fifties and sixties.
The brothers are Dick and Bob McBride, who ran the publishing arm of City Lights for years out of 1562 Grant Avenue. Morgan’s book also has a great entry on 1562 Grant Avenue, which states that the City Light publishing ventures moved there in 1967. Today there is a bronze plaque embedded on the corner of the sidewalk out front designating Poets’ Corner.
Just down the street at 1546 Grant was the location of The Place, a bar opened by Black Mountain alums Knute Stiles and Leo Krikorian. San Francisco artists like Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo, and Robert LaVigne drank and showed work here. Bartender John Allen Ryan, a director at the Six Gallery, started Blabbermouth Night at The Place, an early poetry slam. While Jack Kerouac claims The Place as his own in Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums, another Jack, Jack Spicer, was more into the spirit of The Place. 1546 Grant Avenue was the publishing headquarters for his J Magazine, with a submission box at the bar. Again Morgan’s book is indispensible for information like this, as is Killian and Ellingham’s Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. A look through the Burroughs biographies confirms that Burroughs was nowhere near San Francisco in 1967 and as the phone number suggests there must be a later date for the letterhead.
The 1972 date is interesting. Burroughs appeared in the October 26, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone with a piece on Scientology. It would be cool to think that Burroughs stopped in the offices of Rolling Stone to check in on the reception of his article, given that 1972 is something of a high-water mark in the publishing history of the magazine, if only for the work of Hunter S. Thompson in that period. Sadly it is not to be. Burroughs was trapped in London at this time, preparing his archives for sale, so he could finance his escape to New York.
That would leave 1978 as the probable date of the flyer, and a flip though a couple crucial texts confirms this date. Unfortunately, Ted Morgan’s and Barry Miles’ biographies are no help, but Victor Bockris‘ With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker is. I find quite a bit of useful information in Bockris’ book. It is chatty and gossipy, and thus a great source of what might seem to be useless information but sometimes turns out to be just the anecdote or factoid you need to fill out a story. Turns out Burroughs was in Hollywood in October 1978 visiting the set of Heartbeat, the movie account of the love affair between Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Carolyn Cassady. In the course of his trip, Burroughs meets Timothy Leary, Nick Nolte, Tom Forcade (of High Times), John Heard, Sissy Spacek, and Governor Jerry Brown. In talking with Gov. Brown, Burroughs discusses Henry Miller. Bockris’s book is useful like that. So when Bockris writes, “William flew up to San Francisco where he was interviewed by Raymond Foye in a punk rock newspaper called Search & Destroy,” I had the just detail I needed.
Time to place Bockris back on the shelf and pull out Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997. Foye’s interview, entitled “Call Me . . . Burroughs”, opens with a brief description that sets the context:
Burroughs was in town recently with his secretary, James Grauerholz, to give several readings. This interview was conducted in a bare storefront studio on upper Grant Avenue in North Beach. Mr. Burroughs was impeccably dressed in a glen plaid sportscoat, khaki trousers and crepe-soled shoes, his green-thick felt hat resting on the table . . . By the way, “El Hombre Invisible” no longer chain-smokes Senior Service cigarettes – a recent interest has been physical health.
The interview occurred in the publishing office listed on the flyer / City Lights letterhead. Interestingly the flyer might have been made rather “suddenly” and designed as the interview occurred. It makes some sense as the City Lights letterhead would be easily at hand at the publishing office. At the very least, Foye references the flyer in the introduction to the interview, as the flyer features a caricature of “el hombre invisible” smoking a cigarette, a habit Foye notes Burroughs had recently attempted to quit.
The flyer has a definite punk-rock feel to it, which fits right in with a publication like Search & Destroy and the date. 1978 would also explain the element of hype emanating from the flyer. In early December, Burroughs would not so suddenly appear at The Nova Convention, a punk rock Be-In in New York City. The Nova Convention was full of rumors about special guests, such as Keith Richards, and the clamoring to get an audience with the Godfather of Punk was at a seemingly all-time high around this time. At The Nova Convention, Burroughs was clearly on display and putting on a show. By 1978, the circus, the sideshow around Burroughs was in full effect. The City Lights flyer speaks with the voice of the carny. Step right up and lay your money down.
I suspect that Ferlinghetti “designed” the flyer. The magic marker holograph typography is a Ferlinghetti staple and, by 1978, had been for years. It is utilized on several Ferlinghetti publications, like Tyrannus Nix, or even earlier on Jack Kerouac’s Rimbaud broadside published by City Lights in 1960. If I wanted to be negative, I could throw in some thoughts about the use of City Lights letterhead as representative of Ferlinghetti’s business-like approach to Burroughs’ work. City Lights refused Naked Lunch in 1959 because it was not a prudent business decision, but Ferlinghetti was sure to cash in when the obscenity stakes were not so high and the financial payoff was higher. Yet even with The Yage Letters in 1963, Ferlighetti faltered. Ferlinghetti’s cool reception to Burroughs in the early years rules out 1961 or 1962 as a possible date. The financial payoff for a reading by a very controversial cult figure would not outweigh the potential bad publicity.
I could also rail on about how this period marked the beginning of Burroughs’ career on the performance circuit and that readings were for him one of his primary business ventures. As Foye makes clear, Burroughs was in San Francisco on business and Burroughs was dressed in business attire — the attire that became his iconic look. Burroughs the literary industry did not exist in 1961 or 1962, but was in its nascent stages in 1978. But I have already said too much. Let me just say the Burroughs caricature is a nice touch and a cool reminder that, like Burroughs, Ferlinghetti had another career as a painter. In fact, Ferlinghetti began painting in 1948 in Paris. In 2010, an exhibition of his 60 years of painting showed in Rome.
It would seem to be mystery solved, but in today’s digital age, nothing is true, nothing is real unless it is on the internet. Or on RealityStudio. Oliver Harris’s article on Burroughs and San Francisco confirms that Burroughs did not set foot in the City by the Bay until the mid-1970s. So 1978 it is. Of course, I could have started my research on the internet, where information is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, but there is something to be said for printed matter as a vehicle for research. A true time machine. Get on the paper trail; you’ll never know where you might end up.