Arrested for Selling Howl: The Shig Murao Story

Ferlinghetti & Shig in the basement of City Lights. Photo by Burt Glinn
Ferlinghetti & Shig in the basement of City Lights. Photo by Burt Glinn

Soon after Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop in 1953, they hired Shigeyoshi Murao as their first clerk. Shig was young and charismatic, with an infectious geniality that became as integral a part of the bookstore’s culture as the paperbound volumes on its shelves.

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Shig Murao was born in Seattle in 1926. In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he and his family were sent to a Japanese internment camp in Idaho. Afterward, he joined the Military Intelligence Service, and worked as a translator in postwar Japan.

Although Shig was not himself a poet, he became a fixture in the North Beach Beat scene. He could frequently be found at the Caffe Trieste surrounded by his many friends, who included Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia, Richard Brautigan, and Gary Snyder. Ginsberg would often stay at Shig’s apartment on Grant Ave when visiting San Francisco.

Shig Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait from Shig’s Review

Shig collected poems, collages, flyers, photos, and various other materials from his Beat colleagues, and sporadically published them in an eclectic zine called Shig’s Review. He would make about 20-30 copies of each at the nearest photocopy shop, then walk over to the Trieste, and distribute them amongst his friends. He published about 80 editions of his Review.

On June 3, 1957 (coincidentally Ginsberg’s birthday), Shig was arrested for selling an ‘obscene’ book to an undercover police officer. The book was HOWL and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, and according to Captain Hanrahan of the SFPD, was only the first in a long list of books the department had deemed objectionable. Ferlinghetti was arrested for having published the book shortly thereafter, and the trial that ensued was among the defining battles of the free speech movement.

In 2012, a writer named Richard Reynolds stopped in and asked if we would be willing to build an exhibit based on numerous copies of Shig’s Review. We decided to hold an opening event on June 3rd, 2012—Allen Ginsberg’s 86th birthday, and the 55th anniversary of the day Shig was arrested. Richard and Shig met in 1976, and remained friends until Shig’s death in 1999. Reynolds created and created a website dedicated to Shig’s memory, which is currently maintained by UC Berkeley.

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