At the Counter: The Early Years (1953)

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A tourist wanders into City Lights and asks Shig Murao if he is Chinese.


“No, I’m not a Chinese American,” he tells the tourist. “I’m an American Eskimo.”


Without missing a beat, Shig pulls out a wooden eggbeater he bought in Chinatown, twirls it between his palms, and explains to the tourist that it is a Buddhist prayer wheel.



When I moved to San Francisco in 1971, I lived on Grant Avenue, a few blocks from City Lights. It would be a few years before I came to know Shig, but I was fascinated by him from the start.


A self-described “Coke sucker,” he drank more than a dozen cans a day. He was so obsessed with Coke, remembers Charles Richards, that he would sketch out advertising campaigns for the
soft drink and send them off to the company. (The image to the right is from a postcard he included in his zine, Shig’s Revew.)


At the bookstore he would be courteous if you asked him a question, and though a glint in his eye suggested he knew something you didn’t know, he did not invite casual conversation.


“You didn’t quite belong until Shig actually recognized you,” says City Lights book buyer Paul Yamazaki. “It wasn’t, like, saying your name. It was, at least in the initial phase, kind of nodding to you and saying you could hang around the register without being an alien presence.”


If you were looking for a particular title, you might be disappointed. Writer and publisher V. Vale, who worked for Shig in the early seventies, remembers a summer that passed without a single Kerouac book being in stock. “It was insane,” he says. “Everyone was coming in and saying, ‘Do you have On the Road?’”


Still, you could make unexpected discoveries in the funky basement that held most of the books. Formerly a storage space that served as the lair of the ceremonial dragon used for San Francisco’s annual Chinese New Year parade, the basement was musty. But it was inviting and offered Shig’s guests tables and mismatched chairs where they could spend hours undisturbed.


There was an abundance of poetry, which has always been a City Lights staple. But I also remember discovering John Cage’s essays and oddities like Colin Wilson’s mystical 1967 science fiction novel, The Mind Parasites, in a paperback edition published by Oakland-based Oneiric Press.


Jack Hirschman tells of discovering a Cuban edition of Roque Dalton’s Taberna y Otros Lugares at City Lights during Shig’s tenure—a book he would later translate.


As indicated by the name, City Lights Pocket Book Shop, paperback books made up the bulk of the stock. It was, in fact, the first store in the country to specialize in paperbacks. I bought most of Graham Greene’s novels and many other books in British Penguin paperback editions not intended for export.


Shig’s nephew, John Murao, arrived in the Bay Area in 1972 to begin his undergraduate studies at Stanford. John had fond memories of his uncle, who would visit the family in Chicago during the holidays.


“He had a beard, which was distinctly unusual for all Japanese,” remembers John. “He always wore a sport coat and a tie when he visited. Through the years, as different as Shig cultivated himself to be, and in fact was, he made an effort to defer to the family.”


But as the Japanese aphorism has it, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” Shig’s lifestyle and arrest further strained his relationship with his parents and siblings, which had already been damaged by his abrupt departure from Chicago, where the family had assembled after the war.


While he was in school, John spent most of his holidays and many weekends at his uncle’s Grant Avenue apartment. Shig put his nephew to work in the bookstore, encouraged his interest in photography, and introduced him to Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Kenneth Rexroth. “For a sansei kid from the Midwest,” says John, “it was really eye-opening. You were like in a movie.”


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Shig in his Royal Air Force exercise vest.

Photographer unknown.

[T]he Nipponese panjandrum of the place, sat glowering with his beard hanging down like those strands of furze and fern in an architect’s drawing, drooping over the volumes by the cash register.

—Tom Wolfe’s depiction of Shig in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

A hand-lettered sign in the City Lights basement reflects the welcoming atmosphere that marks the store to this day.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2011.

City Lights Book Buyer Paul Yamazaki.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 20ll.

SHIG’S STORY



SHIG’S
 DREAM   
JOB
(1953)Dream_Job_2.html

AT THE
COUNTER:
THE EARLY
YEARS
(1953)

SHIG’S
INNER
CIRCLE
(1953)Inner_Circle_2.html


THE
HOWL
TRIAL
(1957)The_Howl_Trial_2.html


SHIG’S HEYDAY AT
CITY LIGHTS
(1960)CL_a_la_Shig_2.html


THE END
OF AN
ERA
(1975)End_of_a_Era_2.html


10:00 A.M.
AT THE
TRIESTE
(1975)10_00_A.M._%40Trieste_2.html


LIFE AFTER
CITY LIGHTS
(1976)Life_After_CL_2.html


A SAMURAI
FAMILY
(1920)Samura_family_2.html



SHIG’S
PLACE
(1976)Shigs_Place.html



SHIG’S
REVIEW
(1983)Shigs_Review_2.html


THE
FINAL
CHAPTER
(1984)Final_Chapter_2.html