Welcome to Barbary Prose

Green Apple Books

Green Apple Books, my favorite of the many great San Francisco independent bookstores.Via.

The first literary event I attended when I moved back to San Francisco for college was a Tom Robbins reading and booksigning sponsored by The Booksmith (a true San Francisco institution, though I didn’t know it at the time) to celebrate the release of his short collection Wild Ducks Flying Backward. I was 18 years old and had lived in the city for a month; I didn’t know my way around and was almost late to the reading thanks to a MUNI fiasco, and when I got there I was too shy to say more than two words to Mr. Robbins (although I did get an awkward photo with him that is now lost to the mists of time), but I remember sitting in the audience and feeling absolutely unreal. During my adolescence in the whitebread suburbs, I had lived and breathed literature as only a pretentious and socially isolated 16-year-old can, but in my mind the creative exchange of ideas and celebration of the arts was something that belonged to faraway times and cities, Paris in the 1930s, say. And there I was, here, now, in the thick of it.

If you’re interested in San Francisco’s literary scene, you’ve probably already read this NY Times article, but I want to link to it anyway for my first post to explain why I decided to start this blog. San Francisco is regarded as a tech city, a hip, modern breeding ground for startups and apps and gadgets. Especially considering the highly dramatized battle between print and ebooks, many would consider this state of affairs antithetical to fostering the literary arts, but in addition to being a favorite city of many writers, San Francisco is home to a flourishing independent publishing scene and a vibrant collection of independent booksellers, each with their own unique personality. We have a rich and romantic literary history (comprising Mark Twain, Herb Caen, the Beats, many Asian American writers, and so many others) that continues into the present day.

Barbary Prose, of course, comes from Barbary Coast, the old name for the Gold Rush-era area of downtown San Francisco where prostitution and gambling flourished. When I first heard of the campaign to get the name to catch on as a moniker for the present-day Financial District, I thought it was the dumbest idea ever, and to be honest I still don’t see the connection between that rough image and the modern skyscrapers and suited professionals. But I’ve come to feel a certain attraction to the lawless, freewheeling spirit that the name “Barbary Coast” recalls. For me, it also evokes Barbary Lane, the fictional Russian Hill street where Armistead Maupin’s characters lived in his Tales of the City series.

I don’t currently live in San Francisco (I’m moving back this summer), so for the first couple of months content will probably be limited to books about San Francisco and things I’ve heard about secondhand, but eventually I hope to take part in events like readings, launches, and Litquake; talk to local literary celebrities; and blog about all of it. Welcome to my literary adventure! I hope you stick around.

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