An Interview with Elaine Katzenberger

By Maisie Wiltshire-Gordon

Elaine Katzenberger at podium with photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti projected on screen. The 2022 National Book Critics Circle Awards, New School Auditorium, New York, New York, March 23, 2023. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

The NBCC is proud to confer the 2022 Toni Morrison Achievement Award to City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, recognizing their commitment to literary culture, social justice, and intellectual inquiry.

City Lights began as an enclave for free thought in the conservative post-war era. Founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti envisioned a place where visitors could find books, ideas, and community: “A Library Where Books Are Sold,” proclaims one of the hand-painted signs that still adorn the San Francisco store’s winding stacks. As a bookstore-publisher, City Lights is uniquely positioned to discover and promote new voices—most famously, Allen Ginsberg, whose City Lights–published Howl led to the arrest of the store’s manager and a landmark court ruling in favor of free speech. That ethos has continued throughout the store’s 70-year history: “Dissent Is Not Un-American,” read the store-side banners in the tense weeks following September 11. Executive Director Elaine Katzenberger reflects on her 35 years at City Lights, the store’s founding mission, and what that looks like today.

Are there moments from City Lights’ history that particularly resonate with you—that show a spirit you want to carry forward?

Of course, the story of Lawrence Ferlinghetti publishing and defending Howl is foundational. He was risking his business, which is no small thing. That steadfast commitment to the defense of free expression is part of the DNA of City Lights. But what I really love about that story is that it begins when Lawrence goes to a poetry reading, hears something that blows his mind, and says, “I have got to publish that!” I’ve had those moments myself, that kind of inspiration. Our job is to look at the world of writers to see who’s breaking the rules and opening up discussions. It’s a kind of conjoined curiosity and risk-taking.

As San Francisco and the world have changed around us, I think our work has actually become more vital. There aren’t many spaces left in our culture that aren’t completely dominated by consumer capitalism—it sucks up every possible bit of air around us. But City Lights embodies an entirely different set of ideals and aspirations. That feels important, like a public service. There’s an integrity associated with this place. Our task is to carry that forward. 

City Lights began as a paperback-only publisher and bookstore. Was that a choice about accessibility? How do you think about access today?

In the early 1950s when City Lights was founded, the books being published in paperback were mostly pulp novels. But some publishing houses were just starting to put actual “Literature” into paperback format, and Lawrence was one of a handful of people who wanted to get in on that. The idea of affordable small editions was very exciting. It was post-war America, and the GI Bill meant there was a whole new group of readers being educated. Lawrence wanted to provide something that could open up people’s minds and not freeze them out because of the price. So yes, selling and publishing paperbacks was definitely a model motivated by a commitment to populism, a desire to provide access.

Paperback publishing is still our model. Occasionally we do a hardcover run at the same time. But populism is foundational to our mission, which means pricing books as affordably as we possibly can. It’s become harder and harder—the prices of our books keep having to go up—but we’re always working to keep them as accessible as possible. We want to have as broad an audience as we can.

How do you choose what books to publish or sell?

World events and politics have a lot to do with it. So do cultural developments, social progress, and literary movements. For instance, we published a poetry book last fall that’s now a finalist for the NBCC award in poetry [Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, by Mosab Abu Toha]. The author is a young poet from Gaza, and we started working on his book after a particularly brutal Israeli bombing campaign in May of 2021. He’s authentic and straightforward about his experience as a Gazan, communicating the truth of his circumstances—which includes violence, loss, and pain, but also a resonant and triumphant humanity. It’s a beautiful book, and it’s important, too: it provides a view into a place that most Americans don’t get much actual information about.

It’s similar with respect to the bookstore. We want to share works that deserve the attention that they might not otherwise get. Our head buyer Paul Yamazaki, who has been at City Lights for more that 50 years, works insanely hard to track what’s being published and choose titles that fit with our mission. There’s a firm emphasis on non-mainstream voices and international writers. And of course, political radicalism, leftism, and anti-capitalism are essential to what we do here.

What do you wish people knew about City Lights that they might not?

I think that people know Lawrence Ferlinghetti as this amazing, larger-than-life figure. And it’s true: he was a beloved poet, he was a painter, he published books, and he had a wonderful bookstore. City Lights is his creation, and we wouldn’t be here without him. But the other beautiful thing is that he was a true collaborator. City Lights has been a group project from its inception, and it still very much is. That’s something I’m thinking about a lot as we look to the future: making sure to articulate a vision that others can and will join in.

City Lights has changed in the time that I’ve been here, and I know it will continue to change. Right now, books are one very vital place where humans record their dreams, visions, knowledge, and history, and make that available to one another. Fifty years from now, that might take other forms. But whatever the future holds, City Lights will be involved: inspiring people to do and think their best, and never to be afraid of ideas or those who would try to suppress them.

Maisie Wiltshire-Gordon is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, an interdisciplinary humanities department. Her dissertation asks how a novel’s formal choices are also ethical ones: how texts (especially modernist novels) express an ethical position, and position us ethically. Before Berkeley, she wrote middle school math curricula and then worked in strategy consulting.