Other Views of Shig




This page offers a collection of perspectives on Shig from a variety of sources.

—Richard Reynolds

The following are quoted below:

Tom Wolfe

Janet Richards

Paul Yamazaki

Francis McCarthy

  1. V.Vale

Kaye McDonough

Kent Nagano

Vermillion Sands

Neeli Cherkovski

Stewart Brand

Jan Herman

Gordon Ball

Misao Mizuno

Joni Morishita

Tony Dingman

“[T]he Nipponese panjandrum of the place, sat glowering with his beard hanging down like those strands of furze and fern in an architect’s drawing, drooping over the volumes by the cash register.”

Tom Wolfe’s depiction of Shig in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Wolfe and Shig never met, and Shig was not fond of this description)

“This large, thick, imposing person of the small feet, the spiky black beard like a fence around his aloofness, he of the aplomb, this is Shigeyoshi Murao.”

—Artist Janet Richards in her memoir, Common Soldiers

“Shig was this mysterious other alternative way of being. You walked into City Lights, and there he was. Our fathers didn’t look like this—long hair and the beard—but if you look at the old scrolls, that’s what he looked like. That’s why we were so fascinated by Shig.”

—City Lights book buyer Paul Yamazaki on what Shig meant to the younger Japanese-American generation

“It was very clear that it was his home, the bookstore.... When you were there you were basically his guest, and I always found that rather charming.”

—Screenwriter and poet Francis McCarthy, who worked at City Lights after Shig’s stroke

“Shig tried to live this weird kind of Zen, nonmaterial life. He taught me to rip boxes apart with minimum force—one of his Zen things.”

—Writer, musician, and RE/Search Publications publisher V. Vale, who worked for Shig in the seventies

“If Shig didn’t perform the tea ceremony, he certainly cultivated the ritual of the morning cappuccino.  Chatting and laughing and gossiping with Shig at the Trieste restored my sense that the world was a good place. He was my psychic protector, an urban Toshiro Mifune armed with only a sense of humor. Though he was gentle and somewhat vulnerable, you knew he meant business.”

—Poet and Greenlight Press publisher Kaye McDonough

“I was still in high school and was taken to North Beach by an older friend to explore the area. I walked into City Lights Bookstore in hopes of meeting the legendary Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The colorful optimism of the mid-sixties was fading into a period of decadence. I not only met Ferlinghetti (he scowled and shouted at me) but also met and was confronted by Mr. Shig Murao, an ominous character dressed in a heavy leather vest and a wide-brimmed hat.

“His silent, focused stare generated an uncomfortable combination of hair-trigger intensity, disdain, hatred, power, and complete and utter coolness that I shall never forget. His presence was a wonder—how could anyone ever be this cool?

“That day did see me purchase a book, a primer collection of Ferlinghetti poems (which the poet angrily and quite verbally refused to autograph)—but I did not linger, since the dark glare and thick, wordless intensity of Shig behind the cash register had the effect of a broom sweeping me briskly out of the store to the sunlight, where I felt I could breathe once more.

“People say that first impressions are lasting, and even though we later met several times and often spoke, that impression remains.”

—Multiple-Grammy-winning conductor Kent Nagano, music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich, Germany) and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra

“Shig gave me the opportunity to show my artwork on the walls downstairs at City Lights in the mid-1970s. Shig loaned me $50 toward my trip to London in 1977. Shig advised me not to wear makeup because he said it made me look older. I’ve only worn lipstick and a little eye-kohl since that time. Shig was the Beat. He had an air of uncontrived royalty.

—Painter and original San Francisco punk rocker Vermilion Sands

“What Allen admired in Shig was his bohemianism, his refusal to join the outer society, to be that outsider, to not go into a profession. He had a great mind, and he decided to use it this way. It wasn’t just that he wanted to live that way. He wanted to make a point about it. He didn’t wave a banner about it. But someone has to stay in the bohemian quarter.”

—Poet and Ferlinghetti biographer Neeli Cherkovski

“When I was starting the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 down in Menlo Park and distributing it myself to various bookstores, one of my early hires was a woman named Annie Helmuth, who later married George Leonard. Annie had been a PR person in New York.

“She said, ‘The Whole Earth Catalog is wonderful and we have to get it out wider, and I’ll help with public relations.’ She went to City Lights and talked to Shig about having Whole Earth there in the bookstore. And he said, ‘What you need is a real distributor, and there is a brand-new distributor called Book People in Berkeley that is looking for this kind of thing. They’re an alternative book distributor, they’re West Coast, progressive, counterculture and fun, and not in New York.’

“Annie went to Book People and they loved the Whole Earth Catalog, signed a deal with us, and became our distributor for a number of years.

“So the Whole Earth Catalog could not have taken off without Shig.”

Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand

“Shig always was very friendly to Bob Kaufman, who would come in with his eyeballs spinning like pinwheels. And Shig never wanted to disturb him. He was rather gracious to Kaufman. But he  understood there was a street life and kept a wary eye on it.”

—Nova Broadcast Press publisher Jan Herman, who worked for Shig at the bookstore in the sixties and became Ferlinghetti’s assistant

“Shig had this nice Saab with strawflowers in the back. Those six months I was in San Francisco, he took me everywhere—all over the city, the Palace of Fine Arts, plenty of other places. The big trip was to Seattle. I sprained my ankle right before we left, and Shig drove all the way up and all the way back.”

—Photographer, filmmaker, and writer Gordon Ball, who edited Ginsberg’s journals, on meeting Shig in 1971

“I met Shig at the Caffe Trieste in North Beach, San Francisco.  I felt Shig was my grandpa.

I was accepted to the San Francisco Art Institute to study photography.

I was from Japan.

I was so much into Beat, Beatniks, and the Flower Children Movement.

I was lucky to have met Shig Murao.

I dropped out of the Art Institute to take photos on my own.

I went to see Allen Ginsberg (Shig gave me his phone number) at his apartment in the East Village.

I went to see Philip Whalen at Zendo in the Castro. 

I went to see Gary Snyder in Japantown.

I went to see Michael McClure at his house in Oakland.

“My Japanese friend introduced me to Shig. 

He was looking for someone to clean his apartment.  So I offered to do it.

Once a month, I cleaned his apartment.  He paid me $10 an hour.  Usually I spent three hours cleaning his place—mostly his kitchen.  He liked cooking but he never washed his dishes.

He had lots of books.  He enjoyed making collages. 

He said he was a hobo in the fifties.  He was from a strict Japanese-American family.

Those days, he must have been an unusual Asian hobo....

—Photographer and ancient hula dance teacher Misao Mizuno, who now makes her home in Tokyo

“I always looked forward to visits. So did all the kids in the neighborhood. He would come, and all the neighbor kids would gather at my house, and he would tell us kid stories. I am not sure if they were from a book or were stories he made up. They were always great and he was so expressive. All the neighbor kids including myself thought he was so cool.”

—Shig’s niece Joni Morishita on her uncle’s visits to her childhood home in Seattle

Light a String of Firecrackers

A poem by Tony Dingman

It always embarrassed

Shig Murao

when people

came to ask

the secret

of enlightenment.

He was ready

to answer


of a practical

nature but

there were

always those after

Perfect Total


Fools he could

Suffer, gossips

& literary hatchetmen

yes, but to seekers

of The Way

he would say,

“Please don’t

ask me,

I’m only a man.”

To one persistent

questioner he

finally advised,

“Go to the Stockton

Tunnel & light a

string of firecrackers.”

“Is that all?”

the person asked.

“Take matches, don’t

hurt yourself & keep

a look out for

the cops.”

—A whimsical view of Shig by poet and actor Tony Dingman

Poets Dick McBride (left) and Jack Micheline (right) with Shig at Caffe Trieste, March 1985. Photo by Allen Ginsberg. Reproduced with permission from the Allen Ginsberg Trust.

Publisher Jan Herman at the City Lights counter, 1967.

Photographer unknown.

Poet Kaye McDonough,1972.

Photo by Mark Green.

Conductor Kent Nagano, circa 1990.  Photo by Rory Carnegie.

Long Now Foundation cofounder Stewart Brand. Photographer unknown.

Publisher V.Vale, London, 2009. Photographer unknown.

Writer Gordon Ball at a  memorial for Peter Orlovsky, September 2010. Photographer unknown.

North Beach poet and author Neeli Cherkovski in his home, 2011.

Photo by Richard Reynolds.

City Lights book buyer Paul Yamazaki in his office, July 2011. Photo by Richard Reynolds.

Poet and actor Tony Dingman as seen in a photo hanging in Francis Ford Coppola’s Cafe Zoetrope, in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Photo by Richard Reynolds, 2011.

Original photographer unknown.

Allen Ginsberg, Shig, and Misao Mizuno at the Trieste, 1990.

Photo by Don Beatty.








10:00 A.M.