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Yamazaki: From Clerk to Literarian Laureate

by | Sep 12, 2023 | News

Paul Yamazaki, principal buyer at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, California, has been named as the recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2023 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.  He will be presented with the Award by past recipient and revered bookseller Mitchell Kaplan at the 74th National Book Awards Ceremony & Benefit Dinner at Cipriani in Manhattan on 15 November.  The Awards will be hosted by Drew Barrymore and feature special guest Oprah Winfrey.

Yamazaki became a part-time clerk at City Lights in 1970, and went on to mentor generations of booksellers.  According to the National Book Foundation, his ‘collaborative approach to bookselling has elevated countless authors, shaping the United States’ literary landscape for over 50 years’. A champion for books, writers, publishers, and independent bookstores,

David Steinberger, Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation, said: “Paul Yamazaki’s career has had an irreplaceable, culture-shifting impact on bookselling, independent bookstores, and publishing at large.  Over more than five decades, Paul has brought exceptional national and global literature to readers in San Francisco and beyond. Yamazaki’s legacy has demonstrated the power of connecting the right book to the right reader at the right time, both to move book sales and to centre voices that better reflect the country’s diversity of readers. The Foundation is gratified to be able to recognize his contributions to the national literary landscape with this lifetime achievement award.”

 

Under Yamazaki’s stewardship, the bookstore carefully curates a collection of books that includes literary fiction, poetry, works in translation, and more that celebrates what Yamazaki calls “alternative literary voices,” and to which he credits the bookstore’s exceptionally diverse staff handpicking titles that reflect a variety of interests and life experiences.

In the 1960s, Yamazaki participated in the San Francisco State College Strike—the longest student strike in US history that led to the establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State College; was a vocal supporter of the Black Panther Party; and was arrested multiple times for protesting exclusionary policies and participating in “Stop the Draft” demonstrations, culminating in a six-month prison sentence. Yamazaki was released early after securing a job at City Lights and, as far as Yamazaki knows, is the only independent bookseller to become a bookseller directly after serving a jail sentence.

Previous recipients of the Literarian Award include the writer and poet Dr. Maya Angelou, the literary organization Cave Canem, former head of the American Booksellers Association Oren J. Teicher and the late Carolyn Reidy, former head of Simon & Schuster. Nominations for the Literarian Award are made by former National Book Award Winners, Finalists, and judges, and other writers and literary professionals from around the country. Final selections are made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors. Recipients of the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community receive $10,000 and a solid brass medal.

 

 

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