A lifetime of collecting long ago rendered my bookman’s antennae sensitive to potential new additions, so Fairbanks thirty years ago, with a dozen bookstores in town, was heaven.  

Today we’re down to Barnes & Noble books; Anchorage isn’t much better and that’s why I’m longing to get back to Seattle. A year ago, just before the pandemic, we made the rounds of our favorite Seattle bookstores. Downtown rare book dealers Globe Bookstore (“the Orphanage for Books”) and the newly enlarged Arundel Books (“For Readers and Collectors”) were must-sees, and niche stores like Ada’s (“Technical Books and Café”), Left Bank (“Literacy and Justice for All”), and Lionheart Books at Pike’s Market (where the delightfully gregarious owner  sings and recites poetry) required visits as well. 

Bookstores seem to thrive in every Seattle neighborhood we visited, but if there’s only time for one, it’ll be Capitol Hill’s spacious and comfortable Elliott Bay Book Company (“a full-service bookstore, home to over 150,000 titles, set on cedar shelves in a multi-level, inviting unique atmosphere.”)

Usually we try to do our bit for state culture by mailing a box of books back home to Fairbanks, knowing that if all the public, academic and private libraries in Alaska were combined, they’d still be fewer than the main University of Washington Library alone.

Fully aware of spitting in the wind, I nonetheless try to focus on well-established and respected books and authors (oh, all right, I also frequent Seattle’s Phoenix Comics and the Grumpy Old Man’s Comics, Art & Collectibles) by keeping in mind the highly transitory nature of “best sellers” whose popularity and readability age badly.  

“Here Are the Biggest Fiction Bestsellers of the Last 100 Years (And What Everyone Read Instead),” a study by Emily Temple, showed that the top bestsellers in 1920, for instance, were Zane Grey’s “The Man of the Forest,” Peter Kyne’s “Kindred of the Dust,” and Harold Wright’s immortal “The Re-Creation of Brian Kent.”

That same year saw the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” and Agatha Christie’s “Mysterious Affair at Styles,” none of which cracked the 1920 bestseller list, and all later emerging to literary acclaim.

This came to mind upon reading the recent New York Times obituary of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the legendary City Lights Books in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti was “a poet, publisher, and political iconoclast who inspired and nurtured generations” according to Jesse McKinley’s article.

Although considered “the spiritual godfather of the Beat movement,” he was “older and not a practitioner of their freewheeling personal style,” preferring to be know as “the last of the Bohemians.” Ferlinghetti “made his home base in the modest independent book haven now formally known as City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. He co-founded the store in 1953 with his partner, Peter Martin, both contributing $500, and he bought out Martin two years later for $1,000.  

He and his shop reached national prominence when he published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” and fought long, successful battles against the censoring of his own poems, which, like “Howl,” ensured their popularity.

Ferlinghetti’s father died before his birth, and less than two years later his mother was committed to a state mental hospital and he was cared for by “Aunt Emily,” a family friend who soon relocated them both to France, where he learned French as a first language. When Ferlinghetti was 5, Aunt Emily moved them back to New York and put him in an orphanage while she looked for work. She was hired as a governess by a wealthy couple who took him in and encouraged his intellectual development by giving him full rein over their fine library and sending him to private schools (a strict one after he simultaneously made Eagle Scout and was arrested for shoplifting). 

After graduating from North Carolina University — he went there because his favorite author, Thomas Wolfe, was an alum — Ferlinghetti commanded a submarine chaser in WW II.  His ship was the smallest vessel before being considered a “boat” by Navy regulations, so that meant “we could order anything a battleship could order, so we got an entire set of the Modern Library” (and a great deal of medicinal brandy.)  

After the war Ferlinghetti earned a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia and a doctorate in comparative literature from the Sorbonne in Paris (“the classic breeding ground for postwar bohemians.”)  In 1951 he moved to San Francisco with his seabag and little else.

He was active throughout his 101 years, and “age brought honors.  In 1998 he was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco; in 2005 the National Book Foundation cited his ‘tireless work on behalf of poets and the entire community for over 50 years,’” and his memoir, “Little Boy,” was published at age 99 in 2019.

City Lights (the name came from Chaplin’s movie by that title) was designated a historical monument, and the Guardian.com claims “there’s still no better place to encounter American literature.”

That’s largely due to the dedication of the store’s in-house librarian. Ferlinghetti hired Nancy Peters away from the Library of Congress in 1971, and she put the store on a professional level, pulled them through a financial crisis in the 1980s, and eventually became co-owner.

Peters got her library degree from the University of Washington, like many Alaskan librarians, most of whom I believe would agree with Italian writer and bookman par excellence, Umberto Eco, who wrote, “You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he can offer you reliable advice and save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation.  A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.” 

That applies to every librarian I know, including those of cherished personal libraries.  Someday we’ll see the rebirth of bookstores in Fairbanks, because, as John Updike said, “Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.”

 Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.