Turn Left: Starr Sutherland’s Unfinished Documentary About City Lights 

City Lights Bookstore. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

It’s an overcast Friday in San Francisco and Starr Sutherland is eating French toast with lots of butter and maple syrup at Sea Breeze, his favorite local restaurant. He’s also talking about his favorite topic: movies, including his own most recent project which he would like to wrap up sometime soon. As he knows, movies can take their own sweet time to make it to the big screen. Avatar: the Way of Water took 12 years to produce. EraserHead only six.

For the past five years, Sutherland has been working on Turn Left, a documentary about City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, which was founded in 1953 and is now celebrating its 70th anniversary. Special events take place in Kerouac Alley, which runs between the store and Vesuvio, the legendary café founded in 1948 and still going strong.

Sutherland took another bite of French toast and explained: “When we started the Turn Left project, Ferlinghetti said, ‘It shouldn’t be about me. There’s enough about me already.’ I told him the main focus didn’t have to be him, but that it would be hard to do it without him. He agreed.” Sutherland added, “City Lights: Booksellers and Publishers needs a good documentary.” Making a movie about those two enterprises seems as challenging as operating them.

A cinematographer and a movie producer, Sutherland started to do research for his documentary in December 2018. He made steady progress, interviewing artists, writers and publishers and gathering rare documentary footage. He thought he had the ending he wanted.

But the project was upended in March 2020 when the pandemic hit much of the world, including San Francisco and City Lights. The store shut down. Also, Lawrence Ferlinghetti died in 2021, two months shy of his 102nd birthday. San Francisco went into mourning. For a time it seemed that City Lights might not reopen. But the little bookstore that could, raised a lot of money quickly, got back on its feet and reopened its front door on Columbus Avenue in North Beach.

The bookish, the curious and legions of global pilgrims— searching for an authentic literary experience and a connection to the storied past— returned to the store and bought books. Sutherland, a frequent visitor, watched the rebirth and rejoiced. There is no bigger fan than he.

The City Lights that he knows and loves has not felt the same without Ferlinghetti at the helm, though for a decade or so before he died, he rarely showed up at his second floor office where for decades he wrote poems, edited manuscripts and welcomed writers from near and far. City Lights has survived Ferlinghetti’s passing, survived the ravages of the pandemic, and survived competition from Amazon which has come to dominate the book publishing industry.

Survival is nothing new to the store. Time and time again, it has weathered political and cultural storms, reinvented itself and evolved with the changing cross currents of American society, sometimes even anticipating them. The first storm hit City Lights soon after it was founded by Peter Martin, an ex-New Yorker, who returned to New York soon after Ferlinghetti became his partner and then bought out his share of the business.

The city of San Francisco took Ferlinghetti to court and charged him with obscenity soon after he published Howl in 1956 in the Pocket Poets series. Turn Left covers that event and its fallout.

The trial was the best thing that could have happened to Allen Ginsberg, the author of Howl, Ferlinghtetti, the publisher, and the bookstore which has hardly been able to keep up with the incessant demand for the book over the past six decades. The success of Howl put the store on the literary map of America, made the poet world famous and turned Ferlinghetti into a cultural icon from Paris to Rome, Mexico City to Santiago.

San Francisco has never been the same since the Howl trial, which revived the old bohemian community and provoked the ire of conservative Catholics. For some veterans of the Beat movement, nothing has matched that exhilarating moment, but as Sutherland knows, to end the documentary on that high note just doesn’t do justice to the story. After the not-guilty verdict came down in 1957, Ferlinghetti went on publishing Ginsberg and other Beat Generation writers, including Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure and others.

But he made a wise decision not to tie himself personally to the Beats and not to limit City Lights publishing to Beat luminaries. Over and over again, he would say that he belonged to a literary tradition that preceded the Beats and went back to the 15th century French poet François Villon, the author Le Petit Testament, who apparently spent time in prison.

Though Turn Left is a work-in-progress with an uncertain ending, Sutherland’s documentary shows that the success of the whole enterprise has depended on its ability to reach out to new movements and to publish up-and-coming writers who more often than not have gone against the grain. City Lights has survived book thieves who were robbing the store blind, the many folk in the counterculture who often turned their backs on books and wanted to read Zap comics and listen to rock ‘n’ roll.

More recently, the dot.comers brought a variety of crass materialism and a reverence for technology to North Beach. Their ubiquitous BMWs irked Ferlinghetti and sometimes he despaired.

 What Sutherland’s work-in-progress does especially well is to show, through images and the spoken word, that City Lights has remained true to its underlying values. The filmmaker has interviewed almost every literary luminary in San Francisco. So Turn Left offers a complex and entertaining profile of the city’s multi-layered community of artists and writers.

Sutherland knows that making money mattered to Ferlinghetti; after all, he wanted to eat, not starve in a garret. But making money wasn’t the main thing that mattered to him, much as making money is not the main thing that matters to Sutherland. If it did, he would not have aimed to make a documentary about City Lights and spent years on the project, and still without an ending in sight.

Over the past 70 years, the main thing at City Lights has been to keep alive the spirit of resistance to orthodoxy, censorship and the kind of mind control that the mass media has sought and still seeks. Indeed, the spirit of resistance lives at City Lights, though Ferlinghetti is no longer around to make the decisions of what to publish and what not to publish. An able and talented crew, led by Elaine Katzenberger, who now runs both the publishing company and the bookstore, has remained true to Ferlinghetti’s maverick spirit.

Sutherland’s title for his documentary, Turn Left, captures much of the essence of the store and the publishing company, but it doesn’t capture all of it. City Lights has gone and still goes beyond the boundaries of the traditional American left. Ferlinghetti was always more of a pacifist and an anarchist than a socialist or a communist. He didn’t join political parties.

He was definitely not a left liberal as his own public pronouncements and his poems indicate, including the whimsical, A Coney Island of the Mind, which New Directions published first in 1958 and that has sold over a million copies since then. “I am waiting for my case to come up/and I am waiting/for a rebirth of wonder/and I am waiting for someone/to really discover America,” Ferlinghetti wrote in “I am Waiting,” one of his best known poems.

The men and women who work at City Lights today are environmentalists, feminists, radicals and advocates for the rights of LBGQIA+ people, as well as Black community groups who denounce police brutality and who preserve the roots of resistance to racism and white privilege. Call it a revolutionary bookstore and an anti-imperialist publishing company, too, that has touted guerrillas and peasant movements in Latin America.

Turn Left will come to PBS and elsewhere sooner or later. Sutherland has spent too much time, energy and money invested in the project to stop now. He has to go on. The faces on the screen and the words that are spoken will probably persuade readers to get off their asses and make a pilgrimage to City Lights at 260 Columbus Avenue in North Beach, where they will likely find books and magazines that call to them and that touch their hearts and minds.

They’ll surely go home happier than when they arrived, with paperback editions of On the Road, and Howl and perhaps copies of the latest hardback bestsellers. There’s something for everyone at City Lights. Perhaps those loyal readers who won’t let the bookstore perish will provide Sutherland with the ending he’s searching for. All he needs now is money to complete the project. Any takers out there?

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.