PINCH: Literary San Francisco

[First Published PINCH, 11 April 2014]

Literature led me to San Francisco

San Francisco presents itself as a bit of an anomaly to those whose idea of California is all white beaches and Hollywood glamour. Instead, this unique city scoops up its inhabitants into a vibe that is eclectic and arty. Its liberal views and easygoing attitude make this one of the most exciting yet welcoming places I’ve ever had the luck to visit. What’s more, the city lays claim to a vibrant history, whether it’s a visit to the Mexican Mission area (best burritos in town) or a look at the remnants of the flower power sixties era in Haight-Ashbury; you’ll find yourself delving deeper and deeper into a fascinating past.

Now, my favourite element of this diverse history has to be that of The Beat Generation, a literary movement that rose to prominence in the city in the 1950s. Intertwining the lives of famous names like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the recent film release of On the Road (Kerouac’s infamous novel) has brought the Beat Generation back into the spotlight over the past few years. It was a movement that encouraged people to live a little freer, to get out of one place and explore another – something we’d never say no to here at PINCH. Of course, San Francisco’s liberal views and artistic nature made this a perfect location for the Beats to begin.

A literature student with a passion for the Beats, drawn in by their freedom, innovation and thirst for adventure, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study in San Francisco for a year. So, when I finally made it across the pond to live in this creative, incredibly unique city, where else was I going to begin my exploration than at the Beats’ stomping ground: North Beach? There’s a plethora of iconic places in North Beach, so I’ve decided to give you a little run down of my top three, a quick ‘beats tour’ if you will. You never know, it might inspire you to take a literary inspired journey of your own.

City Lights Bookstore

The best place to start is this iconic bookstore – still owned by Beat writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This place made history as it stood strong against obscenity trials for books such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and took the publishing of many a Beat writer into its own hands. Head upstairs and you’ll find a dedicated area for the Beat Generation – escape into the realms of this revolutionary time and be sure to pick up some of the books hard to find elsewhere.

Jack Kerouac Alley

Next up is the infamous ‘Jack Kerouac Alley’ where tourists pause to take photos under the street sign. It is quite simply a small alley linking Columbus Avenue to the edge of Chinatown. However, it’s the fact that it’s enclosed by two Beat institutions with beat quotes paving the floor that has made this such a tourist hot spot. One quote etched in gold reads: ‘In the company of best friends, there is never enough wine,’ and so encourages wanderers into Vesuvio, a bar right next door…


This bar has seen Beat lovers from around the globe make a pilgrimage just to sit and drink in its colourful surroundings. A renowned watering hole for the likes of Jack Kerouac and many a Beat writer, it is a must-see for a keen Beat follower.  The neon signs, endless photos and Jack Kerouac cocktail are enough to remind oneself of the vivid, adventurous movement that quickly developed here.

Well – there it is. A short list, but hopefully it’s enough to inspire your curiosity. There’s no doubting that San Francisco is a vibrant and colourful city with an exciting past and trust me, if you’re into your American Literature, there’s no better place than North Beach to begin your Californian adventure.

Words by Camilla Sampson