Literature

Tom Peters, Owner of Beat Book Shop, Pays Homage to Jack Kerouac for 100th Birthday

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.
Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. Evan Semón
Tom Peters, owner of Boulder’s Beat Book Shop, can’t tell you his favorite piece by Jack Kerouac, as he considers most of the books to actually make up one large work. (Kerouac was of the same mind.) Peters can, however, sound off eight or nine of the books the beat icon wrote during his 47 years on this planet that are high on his list of favorites.

“His ten or twelve most famous books are part of an ongoing story that I read as a piece of one thing, and it’s hard to separate,” Peters says. “On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, Visions of Cody, Lonesome Traveler, Sartoria in Paris, Desolation Angels — they all speak to me, and they draw me forward.”

Kerouac would have turned 100 on Saturday, March 12. Peters is marking the occasion with readings of Kerouac’s work at his weekly poetry reading, So, You’re a Poet. The readings, which take place tonight, March 7, and Monday, March 14, will include a multi-person reading of The Dharma Bums. The public is also invited to read their favorite pieces by the author, and Peters expects some readers to chime in remotely.

“It’s a great way for people to experience the beauty of the language,” he says. “There’s something they might not get if they were reading it themselves. In the age of short attention spans, there will be a lot of people, a lot of different voices reading different parts of different books.”

He adds that people might leave the reading feeling pretty wound up. “Hopefully it will inspire them to read books they haven’t read and write things and push the envelope,” he says.

Kerouac found inspiration in Colorado, and he briefly owned a home in Lakewood in the late 1940s. Sections of his magnum opus On the Road are set in Denver, including trips down Larimer Street and watching a ballgame on Welton Street. The style of writing in the book was itself influenced by a long letter to Kerouac penned by his friend and fellow beat poet Neal Cassady from a seedy hotel in the Mile High City. Boulder’s Buddhist-influenced college, Naropa University, is home to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Peters studied poetry at the school and finds Kerouac’s work to have influenced artists in many forms of media. Jim Morrison, for example, said that had he not read On the Road and hitchhiked to Los Angeles, the Doors would not have existed. Bob Dylan also found inspiration in Kerouac’s work, as have many filmmakers.

“He didn’t just spawn a lot of prose writers or poets,” Peters says. “He spawned a lot of musicians who felt they got something from his work that made them want to create great music or make a great film. It’s endless. … He inspired a lot of great artists in other fields in a way that not every other writer did.”

Peters opened the Beat Book Shop in 1990 and pays daily homage to Kerouac in many ways, including store T-shirts emblazoned with the Beat icon’s image and the words “Camp Kerouac.” He sells Kerouac’s books, and there’s plenty of Beat ephemera for the discerning fan scattered around the crowded shop.

Peters has held his weekly poetry readings since 1989. Every year, the readings around Kerouac’s birthday have centered on the writer, and Peters jokes that he’s been preparing for the upcoming readings for 32 years. He likes hearing the works read out loud.

“I’ve always learned something,” he says. “I always get something new out of work that I’ve already read to myself. There’s a lot of musicality to Kerouac’s work, and it comes out in the writing.”

Although he loves Kerouac’s work, he balks at calling him his favorite writer.

“It’s my opinion that I have 100 favorite writers or ten favorite writers, but I don’t think I could have one favorite writer,” he says. “If someone said, ‘You’re on a desert island,’ there are five or ten other writers I wouldn’t want to miss out on reading again.”

Jack Kerouac 100th birthday poetry readings, 8:30 to 11 p.m. Monday, March 7, and Monday, March 14, Wesley Foundation United Methodist, 1290 Folsom Street in Boulder. A $1 to $2 donation is encouraged. The readings will be livestreamed on the beat book shop Instagram page.
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