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He Was More Than a Book Clerk

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Fifty-four years ago two undercover cops in San Francisco arrested a clerk at City Lights Bookstore for selling them an "obscene" book of poetry. The clerk was Shigeyoshi Murao. The book was Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Several months later, on October 3rd, a municipal court judge ruled that the book was protected by the First Amendment because it had "redeeming social importance."

If not for the bust and the trial, Howl might never have become as important as it did, either culturally or literarily. More than a million copies are now in print. Further, the ruling made way for the publication in the U.S. of such forbidden books as D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

The 54th anniversary of Judge Clayton W. Horn's historic decision would not, ordinarily, be marked for celebration. But Richard Reynolds, the former communications director of Mother Jones magazine, has done it by taking the occasion to post an unusual Website, Shigmurao.org. The site pays tribute to a book clerk who was "much more than a clerk," he notes, and "in danger of being written out of the history of City Lights and of the San Francisco Beat era."

As Reynold points out, "When Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman made their film of the trial in 2010, for instance, Shig was nowhere to be seen. Yet at the trial itself, Shig and Lawrence Ferlinghetti [poet, publisher, and owner of City Lights] were codefendants and sat next to each other throughout the proceedings." Furthermore it was Shig, he writes, who "managed the bookstore for its first 22 years and crafted the unique atmosphere that made San Francisco's legendary bookstore into the storied institution it remains today."

It's no surprise that Hollywood or, in this case, an indie flick with a maverick star (James Franco), will distort history because of a misguided need to simplify and streamline. What Reynolds doesn't say is that the flick is a complete bore, let alone a distortion. So for a detailed taste of the authentic, including primary materials, have a look at the site that Reynolds has put together. It's a many-layered labor of love and, unlike the flick, both entertaining and enlightening.

(Full disclosure: Shig hired me as a book clerk at City Lights back in the '60s.)