Shig’s Dream Job (1953)

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Shig before the beard. He grew it while recuperating from a motorcycle accident in 1957, shaved it off for the Howl trial, then grew it back.

Photo by Shigesato Murao, Chicago,1958.

If City Lights was a “literary meeting place,” as Ferlinghetti has often described it, the person many people came to meet in the early days was Shig.

The original sign is still displayed in the side window, along Jack Kerouac Alley.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2011.

Allen Ginsberg with portrait of Walt Whitman.

Photo by Misao Mizuno.

The City Lights counter today.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2011.

SHIG’S STORY



SHIG’S
 DREAM   
JOB
(1953)

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)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
 

A writer who is researching a biography of Jack Kerouac buttonholes Shig Murao for the third time. Shig doesn’t want to talk to him.


Hoping to get rid of the writer once and for all, Shig announces, “I am Japanese, and we keep certain parts of our lives private. I do not wish to share my experiences with Jack—they were private and personal.”



No one who frequented City Lights Pocket Book Shop in the early years could miss Shig. When you walked into the store he would be on your left, Coke can in hand, sitting on a high stool behind the book-piled counter.


Born Shigeyoshi Murao in 1926, he was universally known as Shig. His playful demeanor—not to mention his signature beard, Pendleton shirts, Royal Air Force exercise vest, horn-rimmed glasses, and bowler—rendered him unforgettable. But that did not make him easy to know.


Shig, who died in 1999, is largely remembered for an event that occurred on June 3, 1957, when he was arrested for selling a seventy-five-cent book of poetry to two undercover agents from the San Francisco Police Juvenile Squad.


After arrested him for selling “obscene and indecent writings,” the police hauled Shig off to the Hall of Justice, where he was locked in the drunk tank until the American Civil Liberties Union posted bail later that day.


The book was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. The opening words of Howl—“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”—became an anthem for the poets, writers, and drifters who would become known as the Beat generation.


City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was at Big Sur when Shig was arrested, and the police issued a warrant for his arrest. On October 6, Ferlinghetti turned himself in and was released on $500 bail posted by the ACLU.


The People of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was one of the most entertaining trials San Francisco had seen in a long while, and it received front-page coverage in the Bay Area, not to mention features in Time and Life magazines.


More important, the decision, which ruled Howl protected under the First Amendment, helped establish modern legal standards for determining obscenity, paving the way for the publication of Henry Miller, William Burroughs, D. H. Lawrence, and other writers who offended sanctimonious sensibilities.


Shig arrived in San Francisco from Chicago in the early fifties by way of Miami, New Orleans, and Reno. He had heard that a new bohemian culture was beginning to coalesce and had gone off in search of it.


In San Francisco he found what he was looking for—a coterie of poets and artists celebrating spontaneous, unvarnished expression. His first job in San Francisco was as a bartender at Vesuvio Cafe, just across the alley from the future site of City Lights.


Peter Martin, editor of a small literary review called City Lights, met Shig at Vesuvio, and after he and Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop in June 1953, they hired Shig, paying him in books for the first couple of months.


Ferlinghetti, who turned ninety-one in 2010, is well established as the godfather of San Francisco’s Beat scene, and his fame has long eclipsed Shig’s. Indeed, while Shig sat beside Ferlinghetti during the entire trial, he is nowhere to be seen in Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman’s 2010 film about the trial.


But if Shig is not remembered, it is partly because he did not seek out the spotlight. As noted above, when Gerald Nicosia attempted to interview Shig in 1977 for Memory Babe, his Kerouac biography, Shig declined to be interviewed.


Nicosia says that once he and Shig got that out of the way they had good relations. “Frankly,” adds Nicosia, “I respected him for that, and for the fact that he had no interest in becoming quasi-famous, as a lot of people have done, by tagging on to the coattails of a famous friend.”


Shig didn’t leave the kind of literary legacy that Ferlinghetti is known for. But in his quiet way he played a pivotal role in creating the charged aura that marked City Lights and the Beat scene that grew up around it.


If he didn’t like you or suspected you had an agenda, he could be coldly dismissive. But he was also warm, charming, generous—quick to help out a young poet in need with a favor or a loan. And he befriended a diverse array of characters, from Beat icons to obscure street people now long forgotten.


As time passed, Ferlinghetti concentrated more on the publishing end of the business, leaving Shig to manage the store and nurture its distinctive feel. If City Lights was a “literary meeting place,” as Ferlinghetti has often described it, the person many people came to meet in the early days was Shig.


For twenty-two years, Shig presided over the bookstore as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and an ever-changing cast of poets, writers, musicians, comedians, and North Beach characters congregated there—each adding a different timbre to the bebop suite Shig orchestrated in the triangular structure that houses the bookstore to this day.


In many ways, he was anything but a typical Beat character. The bookstore was his life. He didn’t drink, didn’t chronicle his adventures in poetry or journals. (He did love cars and owned two

Citroëns and a Saab during his time in San Francisco.)


But if one looks at the Zen side of the Beats—their attitude that life should be built around pursuing one’s calling, without regard to possessions, status, or financial gain—he epitomized the aesthetic. 


And when forced to choose between compromising his values or continuing the life that was so closely identified with his position at City Lights, Shig didn’t think twice. He walked away from his beloved bookstore and never again stepped through its door. 


Next Chapter


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