Shig’s Heyday at City Lights (1960)

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Shig Murao is at his post in the bookstore drinking a coke. The writer Herb Gold approaches him and points out a scruffy-looking guy who’s about to leave the shop.


“Shig,” says Gold, “he’s got a bunch of books under his overcoat!”


“Well, he does that a lot,” responds Shig. “He’s part of the family.”



By the sixties, Ferlinghetti’s wanderlust had reasserted itself and he was spending a lot of time abroad. When he was in San Francisco he concentrated his attention on the publishing end of the business, leaving Shig free rein at the bookstore.


Part of the job involved dealing with Gregory Corso and other City Lights poets who would show up before closing and harass him for an advance on future royalties to spend tying one on at Vesuvio.


In one oft-told story, Corso, having failed to talk Shig into giving him an advance, broke out a window and robbed the store after closing.


Shig despised Corso, not to mention Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and many of the “second-generation” San Francisco Beats.


But if Corso and others tormented him and Ferlinghetti chose who would be published by City Lights, Shig had ways of exerting his influence.


He would select whose books were displayed in the window and around the counter. And given his feelings toward Kerouac, the difficulty of finding a copy of On the Road in the bookstore when Shig was managing it may not have been the result of the store’s bad credit.


At the same time, Shig referred to himself as “Chief Poet Watcher” and provided a variety of services for poets and others who hung out at the store. There was a bulletin board at the top of the basement staircase where people could leave notes for each  other.


Visiting poets, musicians, and comedians, along with regulars who didn’t have a stable mailing address, used City Lights as a post office and Shig as their postmaster.


He also served the role of banker, as he would often loan money to those who were down on their luck. John Murao tells of a cache of Christmas cards he discovered in Shig’s apartment one day. There were several years’ worth from a poet to whom he had lent money, an uncashed check tucked into each.


The setup of the store—with Shig upstairs and most of the stock in the basement—was an invitation to thieves, who were a constant problem, though he seemed to accept some of them as a part of his vision for the store.


On one occasion a bartender from Vesuvio had to rescue him from a thief who was threatening him with a knife after Shig confronted him for stealing.


And if he generally tolerated street people he wouldn’t hesitate to throw them out if they caused trouble. “But I’m a poet,” they would implore. “A poet in motion,” he would respond.


Shig, says Gordon Ball, who edited Ginsberg’s journals,  “existed purely in the realm of books and ideas. There was no ambition in the sense of moving himself on and on and up and up, but simply the enjoyment of ideas and literature and talk and human fellowship and that was it.”


When it came to City Lights, his aesthetic focused on creating the unique atmosphere that marked his tenure at the store. Shig didn’t seem to view City Lights as a place of business. It was a meeting place for those of an artistic bent to hang out, talk, argue, or quietly read a book, and that atmosphere trumped everything.


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City Lights stairway today.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2011.

Kaye McDonough tells the story of the night a couple of immigration agents came to City Lights looking for a guy who hung out there. Shig told them he didn’t know the guy, and then the agents turned their attention to him and warned him that if he didn’t cooperate they would send him “back where you came from.”


“Okay, okay,” replied Shig. “Send me back to Seattle.”

Sign on the second floor office door at City Lights

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2011.

In October 1961 Shig appeared on a KPIX-TV show called PM West, along with Neal Cassady, Eileen Kaufman,  and Rev. Pierre Delattre. On the show Shig argued that the term “Beatnik” had been exploited by entrepreneurs who spawned artsy-craftsy shops on Upper Grant.


In a column about the show published on October 27 in The Chinese World Shig fumed, “They wanted me more for my beard than for what I had to say. I’m a working man. I put in 60 to 70 hours a week. Just because I wear a beard doesn’t make me a Beatnik.”

SHIG’S STORY



SHIG’S
 DREAM   
JOB
(1953)Dream_Job_2.html

AT THE
COUNTER:
THE EARLY
YEARS
(1953)At_the_Counter.html

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)


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
 

This Arnold Newman photo appeared in the March 1970 issue of Holiday magazine. It accompanied a Herb Gold article called “Culture, Counter Culture, or ‘Barbaric Intrusion,’ There’s Something Going on in San Francisco.”

For a larger version of this shot, go here.