February 17, 2018

Literary Landmarks | ALA 2015 Preview

While it is tough to get away from the conference long enough to experience the host city, and there’s a lot to see in San Francisco, here are a few literary-inflected sights courtesy of Not for Tourists that visiting librarians might especially appreciate.

Cartoon Art Museum

Just steps from the Moscone Center at 655 Mission St. is San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum. Endowed by Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz in 1987, the museum has a permanent collection of more than 6,000 original pieces, including comic books, editorial cartoons, graphic novels, and anime. Explore the special exhibits and bookshop, or check the website for a schedule of book signings, creator appearances, lectures, and cartooning workshops.

Photo by San Francisco Travel Association/Scott Chernis

Photo by San Francisco Travel Association/Scott Chernis

City Lights Booksellers
and Publishers

A 20-minute stroll from Moscone Center (up Third and Kearny streets to 261 Columbus Avenue) brings you to the legendary City Lights Bookstore. Perhaps the most famous literary destination in all of San Francisco, City Lights was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Marti. The independent bookstore and publisher became a Beat generation landmark, publishing Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, and others. Most notably, it gained international notoriety by publishing Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956, which became the subject of an obscenity trial. Although it was the country’s first all-paperback bookstore, City Lights now sells hardcovers as well and specializes in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics.

Maltese Falcon Tour

Dashiell Hammett’s famous hard-boiled detective novel The Maltese Falcon has key scenes set in the Union Square environs. Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 film noir adaptation of the novel) dines at both Palace Hotel (2 New Montgomery St.) and John’s Grill (3 Ellis St.) and works in the Hunter-Dulin Building on 111 Sutter. The St. Francis Hotel on Union Square was the inspiration for the St. Mark Hotel in the story, and at Burritt Alley, a plaque marks the scene where Miles Archer was killed. Steps away is Dashiell Hammett St. (renamed in honor of the author), where he lived briefly at No. 20 in 1926.

Mechanics Institute Library

For a quiet respite in the heart of the Financial District, head to 57 Post St., home to both the oldest library on the West Coast and the country’s oldest continuously operating chess club. Founded in 1854, the Mechanics Institute Library began by serving craftsmen, artisans, and inventors but dropped its technical focus in 1906 when it merged with the Mercantile Library Association. Following the disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire, in which virtually all of the library’s holdings were lost, today’s nine-story classical building was erected, complete with a beautiful marble staircase. The library is open and free to the public, though membership is required for borrowing, use of computers, and Wi-Fi. Check out the exhibit case on the second floor for archival displays.

Portsmouth Square

A popular meeting place for Chinatown residents, the one-block Portsmouth Square (bounded by Kearny St., Washington St., Clay St., and Walter U. Lum Place) boasts several literary claims to fame. On the northwest corner of the square, Samuel Brannan’s California Star debuted in 1847, becoming the city’s first newspaper. California’s first public school was erected the same year at the southwest corner of the square. The city’s first bookstore was also established near the plaza in 1849, remembered by a plaque at 19 Walter U. Lum Place. Nearby, a model of the galleon Hispaniola, from Treasure Island, recalls how Robert Louis Stevenson spent days writing in the park while living in the city from 1879 to 1880.

Rare Book Shopping

Looking to buy or sell rare books? Thomas A. Goldwasser Rare Books, located in the historic Hearst Building (5 Third St.), is a reputable seller of first editions of English and American literature, as well as literary letters and manuscripts, livres d’artistes, and illustrated books. You can continue hunting at the Brick Row Book Shop (49 Geary St.), which was founded in 1915 in Connecticut and has held various San Francisco locations since 1971. Both Goldwasser and Brick Row offer appraisal services, for a fee. Or, head to the Argonaut Book Shop (786 Sutter St.) for books on early California history and the American West, as well as rare literature, maps, photographs, manuscripts, and ephemera.

ljx150601webALA4bRobert Frost Plaza

If you head toward the Embarcadero, pause at the intersection of Market, Drumm, and California streets to find the plaque paying homage to poet Robert Frost. Although best remembered as a New Englander, Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874. He lived in seven different places in the city until his father’s death in 1885, after which his mother moved with Robert and his sister to Massachusetts.

Waverly Place

Sometimes called “the Street of Painted Balconies” for its colorful facades, the picturesque Waverly Place in Chinatown is both home and namesake for Waverly Jong of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. In the novel, Waverly describes the street in vivid detail: “We lived on Waverly Place, in a warm, clean, two-bedroom flat that sat above a small Chinese bakery specializing in steamed pastries and dim sum. In the early morning, when the alley was still quiet, I could smell fragrant red beans as they were cooked down to a pasty sweetness.”

This article was published in Library Journal's June 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.