The End of an Era (1975)




Shig Murao is among a group that has gathered at Vesuvio Cafe after Anne Waldman’s reading of “Fast Speaking Woman,” a breathless shamanistic chant celebrating women’s energy. The reading has sparked a fierce argument. But Shig isn’t rattled. In his quiet way, he holds things together  and defuses a tense situation.

Shig’s approach to City Lights helped make it a magical place for San Francisco’s bohemian crowd, but his vision for the store didn’t translate into a sound business model. And a health crisis would soon bring financial troubles to the fore.

In fall 1975 Anne Waldman visited San Francisco to give a reading of “Fast Speaking Woman.”

“People always used to go to Vesuvio after these things,” says poet Kaye McDonough, “and Shig didn’t often come, but for some reason he was there. There was a terrible argument over Anne Waldman, homosexuality, I don’t know what all, and Shig just kept staying to center the whole argument, in the way that he could, but in an oblique way, very much sideways—you don’t know that it is happening.”

The memory stayed fresh in McDonough’s mind because it was the last time she saw a healthy Shig. Francis McCarthy, a law student who hung out at City Lights and would later work there, ran into Shig just after the reading at Little Joe’s restaurant, down Columbus Avenue from the bookstore.

“We were eating together, and it was apparent to me that there was something seriously wrong with him,” says McCarthy. “His speech was slurring and he seemed a little out of it, and I told him that I thought he ought to see a doctor as soon as possible, and he kind of just shined it on. I don’t think he was quite aware of what was going on. But the next thing I knew he was in the hospital.”

McCarthy was witnessing the effects of a stroke that would lead to a wrenching split between Shig and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I met with Ferlinghetti in his City Lights office in 2003 to ask him about Shig. His blue eyes were almost electric in their intensity as Ferlinghetti remembered how Shig’s stroke focused his attention on the precarious state of the bookstore.

“We had a publishing office on Upper Grant,” he told me. “So I was running that and wasn’t paying much attention to the bookstore. I didn’t realize what bad financial shape the bookstore was in. We were almost out of business and didn’t know it.”

Nancy Peters, who joined City Lights in the early seventies and was co-owner of the publishing house and bookstore at the time of the interview, added that the major problem was the number of books that were being stolen.

“This was the period of Steal This Book,” she observed, “and everyone in the world felt that they could come to City Lights and steal books. Howl was making lots of money and Lawrence was making lots of money, supposedly, and therefore the store was kind of like the free food movement.”

Of course, Shig’s tolerance for the street people he considered family probably didn’t help. Neither did the signs that then hung in the store: “If you steal books, the police will not be called, but you will be publicly humiliated.” I had assumed that the signs were Shig’s work, but when Peters referred to them as Shig’s, Ferlinghetti immediately corrected her: “Those were my signs.”

While Shig was recuperating from his stroke, Ferlinghetti put Joe Wolberg in charge of the store, and Wolberg hired Francis McCarthy to help him.

McCarthy, now a screenwriter and poet, had a good relationship with Shig and says that under Shig’s management the store was “a great place, and I’m sure a lot of it was the result of Shig’s personality and genial character.” Still, he says, “We were trying to plug the holes in a leaking and quickly sinking ship. There were no publishers who would send City Lights any books on credit since the bills were in arrears.”

Wolberg, who now practices law in Marin County, was a curious fit for the job. A philosophy teacher before he moved to the Bay Area, he was distinctly at odds with Ferlinghetti’s leftist bent and considered working as a “retail clerk” beneath his dignity. But Wolberg took the job and set about making some changes.

“The idea,” he says, “was to sell [books], as crazy as that sounded to the Beatnik imagination.”

He and McCarthy confronted thieves (one of whom punched McCarthy in the face, causing an infection that put him in the hospital), reorganized and alphabetized the books, moved out stock that wasn’t selling, and reestablished credit accounts with publishers.

Wolberg wanted to put in an antitheft system but claims Ferlinghetti considered that a “fascist, big-brother thing” and wouldn’t agree to it. (After Wolberg left, Nancy Peters did institute such a system.)

Like others interviewed for this profile, Wolberg says that Shig and Ferlinghetti didn’t have a healthy working relationship.

“I never saw them in a situation where they just sat down and talked,” he says. “Ferlinghetti doesn’t talk much—he’s very distant. There was no discussion, just drifting.”

By the time Shig was ready to come back to work, City Lights was a very different place.

“I wasn’t a businessman, and neither was Shig,” Ferlinghetti told me, adding that he wanted to keep Shig as manager and bring in a “businessman” to keep track of finances.

According to Peters, the arrangement offered to Shig would have allowed him to remain as the “intellectual presence of the store and the book buyer and the person who hired the staff.”

But Shig refused to accept what he viewed as a figurehead position. And, indeed, it seems inevitable that Shig and any conventional business type would have come to loggerheads over Shig’s management style within minutes.

According to John Murao, Ferlinghetti at one point made what Shig referred to as a “death-bed confession,” admitting his role in moving Shig aside and offering Shig the whole store.  “Here, Shig!” said Ferlinghetti. “Take it! City Lights is yours!” But Shig considered the offer a gambit on Ferlinghetti’s part and turned it down.

Some years earlier, after Shig took over management duties, Ferlinghetti had given him a one-third interest in the bookstore as payment for his sweat equity. Now the two came to an arrangement wherein Ferlinghetti paid Shig off for his share of the store with monthly payments over the next few years.

The split was wrenching for Shig and Ferlinghetti alike, and many of their mutual friends felt conflicted. Ginsberg continued to stay with Shig when he came to the Bay Area and remained close to Ferlinghetti as well.

Ginsberg lobbied Shig for many years to return to work at City Lights. So did Charles Richards and others. But this stubborn, proud man refused to consider returning and never again spoke to Ferlinghetti.

As Shig told Neeli Cherkovski in Cherkovski’s biography of Ferlinghetti, “Lawrence writes his poems with no one standing over him and telling him how to write, and that’s how I ran the bookstore, without any outside help.”

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Trieste regular Don Moses’ sketch of Shig, as reproduced on a postcard from Shig’s Review #80.

This was the period of Steal This Book, and everyone in the world felt that they could come to City Lights and steal books. Howl was making lots of money and Lawrence was making lots of money, supposedly, and therefore the store was kind of like the free food movement.

—Former City Lights co-owner Nancy Peters

Shig at City Lights.

Photo by Mark Green.

Artist Bob Ward’s life-size woodcut of Shig.

Neeli Cherkovski at his San Francisco home.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2011.








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