“Ginsberg and Burroughs will rise from the dead and check your coat,” says writer Mark Swartz, organizer of the New York tribute to San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, which celebrates its 50th birthday on Wednesday. “It’s going to be a terrific party.” Founded by poet and Yonkers native Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights is one of the country’s great independents—every book lover who’s paid homage can recall the vast, too-good-to-be-true selection (my last purchase: Christopher Ransmayr’s The Dog King); non-Bay-Area-ites may also recall approaching the store by foolishly taking the hilly “scenic” route. And the independent spirit has burned steadfastly throughout its lifetime, from Ferlinghetti’s ACLU-abetted defense of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (first put out, in that distinctive squarish edition, by City Lights’ publishing arm in 1957) on obscenity charges to its recent outspoken window banners protesting the War on Terror.
Swartz, whose diary-of-a-madman debut fiction Instant Karma was published by City Lights last year, will deliver a “homemade stew” of lines from City Lights authors down through the decades—perhaps the only cento to include both Erotism auteur-librarian Georges Bataille and Sam Shepard. Agent Ira Silverberg and City Lights associate director Elaine Katzenberger will emcee. Also on hand: Israeli writer Oz Shelach, whose slim novel Picnic Grounds was praised in these pages earlier this year as “spare and perfectly painful”; Galaxie 500’s Damon & Naomi, who now run the exemplary Exact Change press; multi-everything Karen Finley, whose Shock Treatment was published by City Lights in 1990; and many more.