In search of...Shigeyoshi Murao

photograph by Rob Lee.

As many of you know, I am deep in the shadowy, sometimes linty pockets of a major research project, which I hope will emerge intact as a published book. The hullabaloo concerns a certain cultural figure from San Francisco's past— a man named Shigeyoshi Murao.

Shig was the legendary bookstore manager of City Lights Books for over two decades. He was a consumate book man, a nisei who served in the Military Intelligence Service's occupation of Japan, and the man responsible for creating the very ambience, the "cool" of City Lights' physical space.

In 1956, City Lights owner and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti released poet Allen Ginsburg's book, "Howl", as Number Four in the Pocket Poets Series, which led to the arrest in May 1957 of Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao on the charges of selling obscenity. "Howl" is often referred to as the "Beat Manifesto," and became one of the most influential books of twentieth century American poetry.

Against the background of heightened publicity, Judge Clayton W. Horn, a Sunday School bible teacher, found Ferlinghetti and Murao not guilty in October 1957, a triumph for twentieth century literature and the freedom of speech for generations to come.

Shigeyoshi, attorney Jake Ehrlich of the ACLU, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the trail.

I am actively seeking people who remember Shig (the omnipresent guy behind the counter) and who would be willing to be interviewed for this project, in exchange for a cuppa joe, a slice of pie, and my undying gratitude. Having never met the man (he died in 1999) I can only speculate about the depths of his extraordinary character and fierce pride, countered by a boundless capacity to share in his knowledge of books.