#2115 | Best meal in Melbourne: Ombra Salumi Bar

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Melbourne, Australia.
All photos taken with the Samsung Note8

I dont know if you guys can tell, but I’m making a real effort here to document all the amazing meals I had in Melbourne. That’s why when we went to this random salumi bar a minute walk from our Airbnb, I still whipped out my phone to take pictures of everything we ordered despite it not being a place I thought of featuring before first bite. But JEEZ THANK GOODNESS I DID BECAUSE THIS MEAL BLEW OUR MINDS!!!!

I have said over and over and over again that I am addicted to having apps for everything (I have apps that manage my money flow, track my sleep cycles, you name it, you got it), and same goes for my travelling. I rely very, very heavily on Foursquare and Yelp when I travel because I truly believe that location based community sourced recommendations are where its at, and it was also through these apps that we found Ombra Salumi Bar. We had gotten back late from St Kildas, having waited for the penguins to come home, and wanted to get dinner but didn’t know where would be good, still open, and relatively near our place. Ombra popped up and although neither of us were huge fans of salumi, the reviews were so good that we just decided to give it a try.

For the uninitiated, salumi is a kind of cured meat that you eat with bread and crackers and stuff. With cheese too, maybe. We got a platter of two types for $22, and it came with freshly baked bread and olive oil. They bake the bread in-house, fresh daily, the waitress told us, and it showed, because the bread was delicious. I had it with a glass of her recommended 2015 Bardolino Cavalchina, an italian red wine, which was the perfect balance to the saltiness of the salumi. Xiaoqi had a cocktail that was yellow in color and I dont remember anything else about it so never mind.

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With her yellow drink. We sat alfresco to dine, though indoors is nice too!

Unfortunately, I dont remember exactly what the two types of salumi we had were because honestly it was such a casual dinner I wasnt expecting to blog about it so I didn’t take notes, but I suspect they change it up regularly so I suppose you can just go in and ask for recommendations if youre in the area! The salumi we had was pretty good, we both raised our eyebrows at each other when we had it, and debated a bit if this was what adulting was like, learning to appreciate food you didn’t really like as kids. Because we were taken by surprise by how much we liked the salumi.

But the show stealer was this insane pizza we ordered. Honestly we just ordered the pizza because we hadnt had italian food for awhile and thought pizza would be a safe backup in case we didn’t like the salumi but IT WAS REALLY LIKE THE BEST PIZZA I EVER HAD IN MY LIFE AND I HAVE BEEN TO ITALY. JEEZ! I am getting very agitated thinking about the pizza. That pizza is the kind of thing that wins awards. I cant believe it was just chilling on the menu, sandwiched in between two other options. Ridiculous. It needs a gold star next to it, a chefs hat icon, a little RECOMMENDED! tick mark, or something.

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Us ripping into the pizza

Because I didn’t take notes (ugh, stupid!), I cant remember exactly what the pizza was called, but I can tell you what was on it. It was a thin baked crust with artichoke puree as a base, really superb prosciutto on top, and fresh rocket piled on. The artichoke puree was honestly a stroke of BRILLIANCE. It was so different from the tomato or cheese or white wine base that normally tops pizza dough, and I think I would buy that puree by the TUB to dip crackers and chips in. When you pick a slice of the pizza up, artichoke puree drips off it. I cry, I weep, I die. It was phenomenal. When the waitress came back out, we started gushing compliments about her recommendations; we were that emotional about it. We had had many good meals in Melbourne, but this was the only one where we loved every single thing we ordered – usually there were just one or two stand outs, yada yada. She smiled and backed away slowly. But no matter, we were happy.

Later in the trip, a day after, Xiaoqi and I were walking down the main street in melbourne discussing that pizza we had.

“I still cannot comprehend what we ate,” she said, “i cannot understand how it could logically be so good.”
“It’s like falling in love,” i told her, finally, thinking about it. “You spend your whole life thinking you’re a person of simple tastes and can be satisfied easily, but then you have a bite of really freaking fantastic food, and your heart does a little leap, and you know it’s the one.”
She laughed. “I know exactly the leap youre talking about,” she said, and did a little dance on the streets of Melbourne.

We thought many cheesy things on that trip, many of which were cliche. But we knew two things to be true at the end of it – 1. Melbourne was a series of very happy moments, strung together by quieter, sated tableaus, and 2. That was the best meal we had in melbourne, hands down, no competition. Pizza, at least for me, will never be the same.

Ombra Salumi Bar
76 Bourke St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia
11:30AM–10PM

x
Jem

#2114| Self Preservation, Melbourne, is my new favourite wine and cheese bar

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Melbourne, Australia
All pictures taken and edited on the Samsung Note8

It seems naive, premature even, to declare a place the best anything while on a trip because pragmatics dictate that a traveller cannot possibly try every single place in a new place and be able to definitively declare one the best. But for Self Preservation, I cannot imagine how another wine and cheese place could even begin to surpass this experience.

A mere two minute walk from our Airbnb, we passed Self Preservation several times but finally went in on our fourth night in Melbourne. In the day, it is a cafe, at night, a wine and cheese bar. The place is classy, understated, with a wall full of wine bottles – my kind of place, essentially. And the people there know their stuff – we were debating what to get when the manager walked over and asked us what we were considering.

“We want to get a red wine and some cheese. Do you recommend the Yarra or Clare valley?”
“What will you eat? Cheese?”
Yes, we indicated.
“The Clare is perfect with cheese, I drink it all the time.”
“We’ll get a bottle then.”
“Wait – if you’re getting a bottle, don’t get the Clare. Get the 2015 Beynat – it’s nearly the same price, it’s biodynamic so there are no preservatives and chemicals and the farmers work harder for it but it makes a better wine, and it will go perfect if you are having cheese.”
“The Beynat it is.”

And it turned out to be the perfect recommendation. Perfect! She not only knew her wine intimately (later she told us that everything was hand-selected by her), she also knew exactly how to recommend it based on the quantity you would be having and the food you were going to order. I love wine myself, but I dont know the intricacies of it – I can only tell when I do and dont like something. And this? I loved.

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The face of a happy happy vinohead

And the cheese we had? Upon first taste, it made us close our eyes in pure delight. We had her recommendation of a soft cow cheese with truffle in the middle from Burgundy, France. It’s called a Cremeux aux Truffles, and it came with a side of figs, jam, sliced apples, and an assortment of toasted breads, all of which were fantastic pairings. The cheese itself, though, was something else. It was Something. Else. It may just be my new favourite cheese – till this point my standing favourite was the Tête de Moine, a ribboned semi-hard cheese from Switzerland. But the Cremeux aux truffles melted in our mouths, spread perfectly over thinly sliced and toasted bread, and the truffle layer was perfectly balanced. It was great on its own too, but the tasting layers were enhanced or muted depending on what you wanted to pair it with – figs or jam or apples – and overall I thought to myself, this is what wine and cheese is supposed to be, a whole experience. Jeez. The emotions, i felt them man.

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Close up

We also had the baked camembert salad, which came in a hot pan with normal garden salad spruced up with lemon zest. So simple, but so incredible. The lemon zing brought the cheesiness of the baked camembert to a less cloying level, and the hot pan meant the cheese kept it’s soft, viscous movement all the way till we were done. I really liked how the manager told us beforehand that our options would keep us full while we were debating if we should get an additional cheese option – some places like to upsell you more, but for her, it was about getting just the right amount so our experience would be perfect. And it was.

The cheeses served at Self Preservation change often according to season, but they are all from the cheese cellar a street down in Spring Street Grocer, which is also owned by the same people, so if one wished to purchase a whole slab for home after tasting it at the wine bar, they could. We checked it out the morning after, and the selection was FANTASTIC. Ended up buying a bunch of peanut butters and jams from the grocer cos we weren’t sure if the soft cheeses could travel home to singapore, which means that our experience with that amazing truffle cheese will forever be immortalised in our memory as that one perfect moment over a crisp night in Melbourne.

Self Preservation
70 Bourke St, Melbourne VIC 3000

x
Jem

#2112 | Midnight Mexican in Melbourne

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Bodega Underground, Melbourne CBD
All photos taken on the Samsung Note 8 and edited in VSCO

We came for the dollar tacos and stayed for the quesadillas. A quick scan of Time Out when we landed in Melbourne revealed a month-long dollar taco promotion at Bodega Underground, a Mexican late night joint literally around the corner from our amazing Airbnb apartment (which i will talk about in more depth, in a different post). One dollar tacos, and open till 3am?! How could one resist? And so we planned our day two in Melbourne such – we woke up, did some work, went for brunch, to the Market, and to the library and bookstore, then back to the apartment to work out and, well, work remotely, and then we headed out again at about 10pm for tacos and wine. And boy, what a great decision.

The $1 tacos (beef, chicken, mushroom, sweet potato – though the promotion is now over) were alright, but because we were already there, we ordered octopus tacos and beef quesadillas from their regular menu ($12-14 each for a sharing plate) and they BLEW. OUR. MINDS. The chargrilled octopus was springy but not overcooked, smeared with aioli, and wrapped in a warm taco shell – perfect on it’s own, even better when you remember that most places absolutely butcher octopus. The beef quesadilla? Jeez. I can’t even describe what that toasty taco felt like in my mouth, but it approximates a nice, winter’s day hug. And to top that off, the Tasmanian Pinot Noir we were recommended was freaking ace. Although I do not know wine to the point of being a connoisseur, I do know when I do and dont like a wine, and every single bottle of wine we’d had in Melbourne thus far had been fantastic. We found that a good strategy was just ordering wine that was from australia, like from Tasmania or Yarra Valley, was a failsafe, and this bottle of Pinot Noir was so wonderfully drinkable we nearly wept when it was over.

This place was about two minutes walk from our airbnb, and the fact that tacos are surprisingly filling meant that I did not get my fish taco that night, another thing i spotted on the regular menu that I really wanted. But that’s okay, because the 3am last call meant I could pop by another day, late at night, and be rewarded with those babies after barely two minutes of a stroll. As circumstances go – how perfect. x

Bodega Underground
55 Little Bourke St, Melbourne VIC 3000

x
Jem

#2111 | Mocha Mondays: No Bad Brunches – Hardware Societe Cafe Melbourne

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Hardware Societe Cafe, Melbourne
All pictures taken on the Nikon D750 with a 35f1.8mm lens

Day three of melbourne and I am convinced there are no bad brunches in Melbourne. Such a thing cannot exist – or if it does, I suppose it it ferreted away like a secret, away from the critical eye of this city of foodies. Yesterday was such a prime example of this that I now want to go into the cafe business – in an alternate universe where I actually can cook, of course.

Xiaoqi and I found ourselves at Hardware Societe Cafe because multiple people had recommended the baked eggs to us, and I cant lie, I love eggs. I honestly think eggs are the perfect survival food, and if one were stuck on a desert island with only one thing to eat for the rest of their lives, the best thing one could do is ask for an everlasting supply of eggs because they can be cooked like fifty different ways and they are an excellent source of protein and they are also SUPER YUMMY. And that was essentially what lured me in and had me commit to a twenty minute wait for a table, because from what I understand, Hardware ALWAYS has a queue.

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The queue when we reached

We put our names down and had a gander down the adjacent road, then came back just when our names were called, so the wait was actually alright for us. I dont think most people realised they could just put their names down and walk around (we asked), but in any case, you heard it here first!

Anyway, we finally got seated at the alfresco area cos there were only two of us, and we (totally over)ordered what was soon to reveal itself as the best brunch of our lives with the super friendly staff. There is no way to do this elegantly so I am just going to describe what we had:

We started off ordering drinks and a Cruffin. A Cruffin is basically a hybrid of a croissant and a muffin, and this is the second cruffin i have ever had, ever. The first I had was in a cafe in Bangkok, and I wasnt very impressed with it. However Xiaoqi spotted the cruffin in the window of the Hardware Societe counter and went straight for it and thank goodness she did because it was HEAVENLY.

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Matcha and Strawberry cruffin

This is the strawberry matcha cruffin which was the perfect mix of fluffy, crisp, and NOT TOO SWEET. The not too sweet part is important, i do feel that too often people make pastries way too cloying, and that ruins it for me because i dont have much of a sweet tooth. But this was really good – the server later said it was the best thing on the dessert menu.

Will I ever have a cruffin again in my life? Can anything ever live up to this experience? Look at that crisp fluff, that amazing dollop of matcha and strawberry.

Two mains: we ordered the famous chorizo baked eggs, and the salmon millefeuille.

First, the baked eggs. They come in two variants, scallop, and chorizo. We got the chorizo cos we were already ordering salmon for another dish, and we thought we should get one seafood and one non seafood dish. The chorizo variant comprised chorizo sausage, potato, piquillo peppers, queso mahon (a type of white cheese), toasted almonds, and aioli, which is essentially atas mayonnaise.

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Eggs r life

The baked eggs were pretty ace, but the bread it came with was what really impressed us – it’s the right amount of crisp without being dry, and complements the wet of the eggs perfectly. I particularly liked the almonds in the eggs because it added texture to the dish, and I could objectively recognise that this was delicious – but i just didn’t see how baked eggs with chorizo could differ that much from a standard taste. We suspect the scallop variant might have been better, but limited by money and stomach space, we regretfully did not try it. Perhaps a half and half next time? Still, it was a great dish that raised our eyebrows upon first bite. And we thought, jeez, melbourne. Is there any dish you can’t do?

That was until the Salmon millefeuille came, and we totally freaked.

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LOOK. AT. THIS.

Millefeuille, in addition to being a word i cannot pronounce, is a type of french puff pastry, which typically has vanilla custard or some kind of sweet paste in it. The combination of that light pastry structure with salmon tartar instead of a sweet layer was a stroke of genius. I am a huge fan of salmon, but I always hesitate to order it while dining out because it’s too easy to screw up and too often I’ve sat, disappointed, in front of an overpriced, dry piece of baked salmon. But this dish came with two forms of salmon and both were perfectly done, and when we ate it it was like everything was right in the world.

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LOOK AT THE CRISP LAYERS OF THE PUFF

Lets talk tartar. The salmon tartar (raw salmon, seasoned) was made fresh – you can always tell when it’s not because it’s slathered with sauce, and fresh raw fish should never be overwhelmed with sauce so that you can taste the freshness – with horseradish and avocado. The horseradish wasnt too strong – i think it might have been pickled actually – and it was served in very thin slices so it didn’t overpower the rest of the dish like i was afraid it might. Basically the perfect balance of this dish was essentially physics. The people behind this are scientists. I am convinced to my very bone.

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Look at that sear, look at the pink in the middle of the fillet T-T

And the confit atlantic salmon it came with??????? Was so perfectly cooked with the nice pink soft middle??????? I wanted to cry. I wanted to befriend the chef and move into her basement. Do her chores in exchange for meals. Give her a sticker that says Salmon Whisperer. Xiaoqi and I couldnt understand why the baked eggs overshadowed the salmon dish – i literally have heard no one mention the salmon millefeuille dish in any foursquare/yelp review (yes, i am the type of person to obsessively foursquare/yelp a place to figure out what best to order). This dish was the real MVP. After our meal as we walked down the alley I started hissing at random people in the queue ORDER THE SALMON. ORDER THE SALMON. I would have shouted it but i was too full and too shy. But there is no shyness on the internet, so. ORDER THE SALMON.

Finally – for drinks, we ordered the Matcha Maiden green tea latte and the signature hot chocolate mocha (aha! there you have the mocha monday in this mocha monday post) with 54% callebaut. They were individually good, but nothing mind-blowing, which kind of meant they paled in comparison to our food. The matcha is apparently the most popular drink on the menu, and it’s of the non-sweet variety which often means it’s legit matcha, so that’s good, but we didn’t finish it. The chocolate is extremely thick and comprises hot chocolate that you manually pour from a pot into a cup where a dollop of actual chocolate sits, and just based on that you can imagine how thick and rich it is. Pretty good, but again, it’s a heavy drink which doesn’t exactly complement a heavy brunch. No regrets ordering those, but we would have been ok with (free!) plain water too, methinks.

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Overall – a fantastic place. I can’t decide if I would come back because the memory of this is so perfect that I’m almost afraid that I will come back, have it again, and not have it live up to the vignette of my experience. In some ways this meal was like that bukowski poem i love – i loved it like a man loves a woman he never touches, only writes to, keeps little photographs of. Straight up, I loved it. Poetry in my mouth, on my tongue. I recommend this so hard.

Hardware Societe Cafe
120 Hardware St, Melbourne VIC 3000

x
Jem

#2109 | I’m with you in Rockland – City Lights Bookstore San Francisco

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San Francisco, California

I make it a point to visit at least one bookstore in each new city I go to, but with City Lights Bookstore, it was more of a pilgrimage. I don’t even know how to describe City Lights in a way that would remotely do it justice, but lets start with this: it was the place that published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and subsequently got embroiled in an obscenity trial as a result, which was eventually dismissed under the First Amendment protection in American court because it had “the slightest redeeming social importance”. This paved the way for previously banned books to be published in America again and now its a designated world heritage site. WILD OR WHAT.

Anyway. Today was my last day in San Francisco, an insane four-day trip on agenda for Disney Pixar. I have so much to say about that, but that’s a post for another day. My girlfriend Kate flew down from New York to meet me in San Fran, but she left after lunch today to meet her cousins a town over, and so I found myself with a block of free alone time in the bay. I pottered down to the bookstore (an adventure in itself, figuring out public transport in SF city, because they DONT LABEL THEIR BUSSTOPS) and eventually a bus 30 got me somewhere near and I walked the rest of the way.

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The view while walking over

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I DIE. SO EXCITED.

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If I’m not wrong the founder of City Lights is BFFs with George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company in Paris

The bookstore physically reminds me of Three Lives and Company in New York – one of my favourite bookstores in the world. It is not an architectural showpiece like Los Angeles’s The Last Bookstore, which I visited last year end and loved as well – it’s more cozy and grungy. There are hand-drawn signs everywhere with slogans like EDUCATE YOURSELF, READ 14 HOURS A DAY and FREE SPEECH ZONE which I suppose reflects the bookstore’s iconic status as a proponent of free speech back in the fifties. It also has a very intimate feel, and everyone there moves with an air of reverence, almost.

As well as being a bookstore, it’s also a publishing house, and that was what gave it its cult status back in the fifties because it published what was considered the most alternative literature back then. Ginsberg’s Howl is one, but Jack Kerouac’s poetry books were all published by them, and he also spent a lot of time there writing his novels. Most people will know Kerouac by the super common ON THE ROAD BY JACK KEROUAC penguin book passport cover which Penguin has mass produced for the hipster demographic, but he’s also one of the key figures for the Beat generation back then.*

*The Beat generation is an american post-war literary movement that explored culture and politics, and that often gets described as bohemian or hippie culture hahahahaha cos they’re all about SPONTANEOUS LIVING and NON CONFORMITY

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A shelf of their latest published works. I bought a Bukowski book from this shelf

It sounds terribly academic when I phrase it that way, but the effect of the above was that for the first time ever, literature became a popular movement in the US. I think the only time, lol, cos after that period everyone just went back to watching TV. But anyway the point is that City Lights’s role in creating beatnik culture is super iconic in American literature ok. And till today, people are welcome to just show up at the bookstore and sit and read anywhere they want in their three floors. Whether there’s space is a different story lah cos it’s still a bit of a squeeze, but the result is that the entire atmosphere is humming with an adoration for the printed word.

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Level three is the most spacious of the three floors, and sells only poetry, much of which is published by City Lights.

They host events, readings, and book launches up here too. I wish I’d been in town when an event was happening, but chances are I wouldnt have been able to get in anyway given how tiny the space is. I think forty people in this room, max?

This room was actually slightly intimidating because the stairs creak going up, so evernote already on level three can hear you coming, and the dude sitting in the corner looked super grumpy when I walked in cos obviously I was disrupting his reading ~flow~ I mean, ok, dude. It’s a free world!

They’re also pretty famous for their pocket poetry series which sells good poetry in consumable forms, via little pocket books. I bought the Howl one for a girlfriend because it is obviously the most iconic thing in this bookstore. I mean the owners went to court for an OBSCENITY TRIAL because they dared publish it lolololol HOW TO NOT BUY? #consumerism #ironic

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If you’re more into fiction, and are too shy to talk to the staff for recommendations (strangely, many bookworms are introverts, so I think something went wrong with me somewhere cos i LOVE talking to strangers), there’s helpful little labels with staff picks and little descriptions to help you along. Many bookstores do this, and in retrospect I suppose its geared towards catering for the introvert nature of obsessive readers.

You also wont find chick lit here – this style of bookstores (as opposed to chain bookstores) are very curated, and City Lights in particular specialises in world literature, progressive politics, and the arts, so the book selection reflects that. I actually saw a book that was titled Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? by Mumia Abu-Jamal which was published by City Lights, which basically tells you everything you need to know about the bookstore. (It’s very highly rated btw, with a 4.3 on goodreads. Not that goodreads is the definitive guide to great books.. but Alice Walker also had a lot of praise for this book, which I can get behind.)

Anyway, I didn’t want to take up too much space hovering around the shelves and also, I had a flight to make, so I bought three books and left after awhile. Would have gotten more, but luggage space was an issue. At checkout, the hardest thing I had to say this whole trip was to the cashier..

“I’ve changed my mind about these (5) books.”
“You sure honey? They’re good.” (a stab to my heart.)
“I’m sure.. I have no more luggage space.”

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Still pretty pleased with my buys! It comes in this old school brown paper bag, which I had to carry around the rest of the day WITH PRIDE before getting back to my luggage storage facility and heading to the airport.

The bookstore is also right next to Jack Kerouac alley. I dont know why they called it that cos it’s just this tiny alley that leads to Chinatown, so I googled it and turns out it used to be a garbage dumping spot until the bookstore owner pitched to San Francisco Board of Supervisors to transform the alleyway, and so now it’s like another iconic place full of street art and poetry engraved into the floor I guess. I mean in theory it’s pretty nice but in real life the alleyway smells like weed and has suspicious looking people smoking joints on the floor. So.. ok. It’s not dangerous la, so its still worth walking down, it’s tiny and it’ll only take like three minutes.

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You pop out on the other end in Chinatown! Which is pretty funny because now there’s a resurgence of interest in Asian literature so its like you go into this Western literary route of passage and pop out in china hahahahahaha.

Ok after that I just walked around till I hit the pier again, then I got my luggage and went to the airport. So happy that I managed to squeeze in a bookstore visit in SF, I think the moment i passed the threshold of the bookstore was when I truly fell in love with San Francisco – prior to that we had gotten along amiably, pleasantly. But the bookstore to me represented so much more that I couldnt help adoring the city vis a vis its lens – and I suggest you all take a gander if youre in town too x

City Lights Bookstore and Publishers
261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

x
Jem