Since early days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco's given rise to an extraordinary cast of literary game-changers, poets, and writers. Some authors were created here; many made decisions to relocate to the famous free-thinking city. Some were just passing thru and took a liking to the place, but regardless of how long they remained or where they came from, they all left their marks in one way or another all over this city.
A few left the kind of marks you can enjoy walking around on a decent day. I'll show you how to pay homage to writers - Robert Louis Stevenson to Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac to Dave Eggers to name a few that have inspired many with their tales.
Start your walk off on Bush Street (close Stockton Street)! On 608 Bush Street, wedged among a laundromat and a barber shop, you are going to notice a building with an arched entryway flanked by glass lamps. The aesthetic flourishes might seem somewhat out of place since the construction's rather unglamorous surroundings, but look a bit closer, and you will realize the place actually has a rather distinguished history: a plaque mounted on one side of this archway notes that Robert Louis Stevenson lived here from 1879-1880.
The Scottish author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde spent approximately a year at Bay Area while, very scandalously, waiting for the married American with whom he had fallen in love while she divorced her husband.
Stevenson was an avid traveler, and spent just a year by the Bay, though he undoubtedly entrenched himself within the wild city life while he was here, he frequently wrote during his time within the metropolis. He became a great fan of Emperor Norton, and made frequent visits to Portsmouth Square while in the center China Town.
Usually referred to as "China Town's living room," the square is today a gathering place for this neighborhood's residents: every day of the week you will find old men on benches playing card and board-games (they are good!), and categories of people practicing a spiritual and bodily exercise known as Falun Gong. You'll also find a massive monument. A tall stone pillar appropriately topped with a ship and its sails at full wind.
Clustered together right across the intersection of Broadway and Columbus, you'll discover a trio of testaments to the more recent literary history of San Francisco. Make your way into City Lights Bookstore, arguably among the most famous bookstores in the U.S., for a rapid immersion into the Beat era of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Right alongside City Lights, you will come across a colorful alley dedicated to Ferlinghetti's good friend Jack Kerouac. On Broadway, nearly kitty corner from City Lights, a massive black-and-white mural of Kerouac and his Denver friend Neal Cassady pulls passer-byers into the Beat Museum.
Part store, part shrine, this place has been carrying on the progressive spirit of the Beat generation since 2003: a gem location to score hard to find titles by not just Kerouac and Ginsberg but also great reads from Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and William S. Burroughs to name just a few. It's also the permanent home of the 1949 Hudson that Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, drove cross-country in the 2012 Big Screen adaptation of On the Road.
Ferlinghetti, an author of one of the most popular books of poetry A Coney Island of the Mind, founded City Lights in 1953. What started off as the nation's first all-paperback bookstore has evolved over the years into much more. Today, City Lights can be just a treasure trove of hard to find titles, translations from all over the world, politically progressive literature, and the kind of novels which were once banned in classrooms and inspired a few of my adventures. Additionally, it is a publishing house that generates great works of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry to this day.
City Lights gained notoriety in 1957 when Ferlinghetti was tried for obscenity after publishing Allen Ginsberg's seminal Howl and Other Poems. When the court ruled in Ferlinghetti's favor, it opened the doorway for American publications of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, along with also other books once deemed too inappropriate for release in America.
The shop part of the Beat Museum is free to browse, and for $8 ($5 for students), you're able to get entry to the museum itself. Inside you will discover an enormous selection of memorabilia, original manuscripts and first editions, personal letters, and more from prominent figures of the Beat era.
Just over the alleyway from City Lights, Vesuvio Café is another remnant of the area's Beat Era. The bar was a regular hangout for Kerouac and his contemporaries; today it's still a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Grab a table, order up a "Bohemian Coffee" spiked with brandy and Amaretto, thumb thru your dog-eared copy of On the Road or Big Sur, and you'll fit right in.
At the corner of Montgomery
and Merchant Streets, you will discover one of San Francisco's most popular buildings: the iconic Trans America Pyramid. Today, the tower's a feature in the city's skyline, but there was a time when a more leveled famous building stood on the site thats the pyramid now occupies.
Built throughout California's Gold Rush days, the Montgomery Block building was the state's very first earthquake- fire proof structure (a quality that would serve the building well through the town's devastating 1906 earthquake and fire). Once the biggest building west of the Mississippi, living and office space was provided on the Montgomery Block until its demolition in 1959 to many writers, artists, and attorneys. Writers who lived, worked, or visited here over the years comprise of Stevenson, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, and Mark Twain.
The Montgomery Block looms especially large in Twain's legend: it was while in the building's basement sauna that Twain met a fire fighter named Tom Sawyer, taking a liking and filing it away for future use.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry turned out pretty well for this word wizard.
From the Trans-America Pyramid, Walkabout five minutes down Columbus Ave. approaching Broadway. Maintain your eyes close to the ground, and you may observe a plaque commemorating two other famous San Franciscans: Bummer and Lazarus, a couple of stray dogs who captured the heart of the city in the 1860s. Think about this if you end up wondering how popular a couple of stray mutts might rise to fame: Mark Twain wrote his obituary when Bummer died in 1865.
Though the Montgomery Block building is gone, a plaque in the lobby of the Transamerica Pyramid commemorates the literary value of the site. Just off to the side of the pyramid, a Privately Owned Public Open Space is full of redwood trees and provides a forested escape in the middle of the city's bustling Financial District. Pack a small picnic!
On a wall of what's now the Wells Fargo Bank building at 490 Brannan Street (near 3rd Street), a plaque marks the birthplace of Jack London, author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild.
Fans of more recent contemporary literature will not want to leave San Francisco without stopping in the Mission. Dave Eggers, the wildly popular writer of A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, lives in Northern California, and has setup his foundation headquarters in 2002 at 826 Valencia St. The nonprofit offers tutoring to local schoolchildren and has expanded to half of a dozen other cities throughout the country. To help fund the tutor programs, the business has created a full service "Pirate Store" at its eponymous address.
And what does a store sell you may ask? Consider this notice posted at the front of the shop:
"If you can find a wider selection of higher-quality eye patches for more occasions in the Mission, we'll personally find and replace your missing eye free of charge."
San Francisco maybe a city of stories and writers like no other in America, but remember, the greatest bay area story is your own. Therefore take a cue from Twain, Kerouac, and the others; move around and live it.