Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Friday Slide Show: At City Lights Bookstore Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

24 March 2017

For years we have been trying to remember what's written on the four hand-drawn paper posters that have hung for years in the top panes of four windows on the top floor of City Lights. We never can. We have to find the photo, reproduced below, to see what they have to say: Open Door, Open Books, Open Mind, Open Heart.

Books are a way to open your mind and heart. And bookstores are the door to them.

City Lights has long worked on two fronts to open minds and hearts as both a bookstore and a publisher. Specializing in world literature, the arts and progressive politics, it was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin. It was the nation's first all-paperback bookstore.

The publishing arm of the enterprise was launched in 1955 with the Pocket Poet Series. It now has over 200 titles in print, adding about a dozen a year.

As a native San Franciscan, we've been poking around its shelves for decades. Centuries, in fact.

City Lights. From the corner where Columbus intersects Broadway.

There are three things we love about it.

Downstairs, where one learns social skills passing people on the narrow staircase, we can find real drama. We're talking about theater. The stage. As scripted by dramatists. That's where, for example, we found Alan Ayckbourn (and not just the odd title, but several).

On the main floor, we linger a long time among the works in translation. For us, it's the discovery of new Italian writers that draws us through the rows of shelves. That's where we found Enrico Palandri.

Then there's the Poetry Room upstairs where we made the acquaintance of Patrizia Cavalli's work. At the foot of another rickety but this time wider staircase leading to the Poetry Room, there's a doorway to the street that is never open. Just inside it the floor is a mosaic announcing the studio of Vitalini Fotografia Italiana.


Charles Vitalini immigrated from Italy in 1880 and made a woman named Mary his wife in 1905. They had a daughter Adele, who was born the following year. After the Great Earthquake and Fire that same year, Vitalini had to temporarily move his business to Oakland. By then he'd been in business 23 years, according to his ad published 10 months after the disaster in a special edition of Italia, the local Italian newspaper.

Vitalini Ad. A temporary relocation to Oakland.

We have to wonder if the mosaic wasn't placed in his new studio in North Beach on his return to the city. A sign of hope. A promise.

In 1929 Adele herself married a fellow named Alfred Bonfilli, who sold cigars. The next year, after Charles passed away, Mary continued the photography business on her own.

We can trace our own ancestors back to the city in the late 1880s when Teodore Bacigalupi, prominent bank executive who had made his money in Trinity County, argued for teaching Italian in the public schools.

In 1906, he managed to bring great grandfather, great grandmother and their two young boys here just a week before the Great Earthquake and Fire. No good deed goes unpunished.

We have to wonder if they didn't climb these steps upstairs to the Vitalini studio for their portrait.

The light up there, coming in two old windows, is almost always soothing. Sometimes diffused by the fog, sometimes warmed by the sun. And the shelves are always full of discoveries.

When Borders Books opened a huge store on the corner of Union Square a few years ago, Ferlinghetti raised a fuss. The big chains were driving the independents out of business. But Lynn Yazzolino, the manager of the new Borders, calmly pointed out that there was room for both of them.

That's because for all of its long shelves, you never saw the same titles at Borders as you did at City Lights. And now, of course, only City Lights is still standing.


Our very short slide show of the Poetry Room at City Lights dates from 2011 when we had the Nikon V1 here for review. The Raw captures have been massaged in Lightroom CC, but not much. We did have to pull the highlights back but that was really because we had both indoor and outdoor light sources, quite a range. And we used the Upright tool without shame.

The overview shows the top of the staircase on the left and the shelving that lines the walls. Behind you the A's start and beyond the table to the right is the end of the alphabet.

That's where the second image has been taken. With an open book by a window showing the fire escape. We find it a particularly poetic image.

The next shot is the window to the right of the first one with a view of downtown. If you look carefully at the building in front of the dark Bank of America building, you can spot three of Muriel Castanis' The Corporate Goddesses. You can also see them in the overview of the bookstore above (taken a year later with a Nikon D300).

But then we come to the final three photos, which are through that second window.

The faceless goddesses are more easily detected but we liked the scene for the simple reinforced brick building across the alley that leads to slightly taller subjects on the way to the Bank of America building. That's one of the tallest in San Francisco (with the best view, as the architect Robert Garbarino put it, because from there you can't see the Bank of America building).

The next image scans just right to see laundry hung out to dry. And the final image looks down at the bare bulb lighting a hallway in the same brick building. For all the poetry, it seems reality is never far from some shabbiness, too.

We've never seen the door to City Lights closed. And the steps to Vitalini's old studio still lead you to the light. Who knows what you'll find there -- but it would be hard to find it anywhere else.

BackBack to Photo Corners