are many theories as to why Portland, Oregon has such a high concentration
of bookshops, ranging from the fact that the city attracts artistic
and literary refugees from the high rents of Seattle and San Francisco
to the certain knowledge that you have to spend a good deal of time
indoors making your own entertainment. Portland is surrounded by
scenic countryside and is a favourite with fans of outdoor pursuits,
but it shares its climate with Manchester. If you can’t see
Mount Hood it’s raining and if you can, then it is about to
start to pour down.
its reputation as a rain-sodden city Portland has a sunny disposition
and even the odd sunny day. The city is small enough to be explored
on foot, with short hops on its efficient and enlightened public
transportation where necessary. The downtown area is designated
‘fareless square’, where there is no charge to hop on
a streetcar or bus, whilst the MAX light rail system is a useful
fool-proof tool in crossing the Willamette River, which divides
the city into east and west in much the same way that the Thames
cuts London into north and south.
anyone with an interest in literature about Portland and the first
name they throw back at you will be Powell’s Books, whose
name is now almost synonymous with that of the city. If you see
a tourist staring at a map in the city centre it is likely that
it will be one given away at Powell’s City of Books (with
each of Powell’s other locations handily marked), the main
branch of America’s largest independent bookshop. The shop
takes up one city block and has colour-coded rooms so you can find
your way around, as well as a team of assistants to answer queries
and re-orientate the lost via rose and purple and then up to red.
flagship store holds a million books, with up to another million
in Powell’s specialist outlets, such as Powell’s Technical
and Powell’s Books for Cooks and Gardeners, and in the warehouses
that feed its online presence – a favourite with left-leaning
readers that see Amazon.com as just another chain. In Portland Powell’s
has the chains well and truly beaten. A Borders cowers downtown,
but their selection can’t hold a light to the City of Books,
situated in a former car dealership on West Burnside since 1971.
surprising secret of Powell’s success is the fact that it
shelves its used books with its new books, meaning that you can
choose between a pristine £15 novel, a remaindered, older
version for $8 or a second hand one for $6.
found that putting the whole choice in one place actually drives
sales,” says Powell’s public relations manager, Steven
Fidel. “Walter Powell, who started Powell’s Books, didn’t
have any background in books, he was a painting contractor and when
he set up his bookstore he just put everything together.”
is this happy accident that now brings out-of-state visitors to
Portland just to visit Powell’s and what makes it an attractive
destination for anyone with a healthy appetite for the printed word.
But what is surprising about the city is that dozens of small independent
bookshops can thrive in the wake of the bookshop that seems to have
such small shop, at just 650 square feet, is Reading Frenzy, which
is literally around the corner from Powell’s. Run by native
Portlander Chloe Eudaly, Reading Frenzy specialises in small press
titles, independent magazines and short-run self-published fanzines,
many of which are written and printed in Portland. These can usually
be picked up for under $5 and include titles such as Broken Hipster,
the illustrated story of a young woman coming to terms with kidney
dialysis, and On Subbing, the amusing and engaging diary of a casual
classroom assistant in local special schools.
come to us because of our unique aggregation of magazines, comics,
zines and books and perhaps our enthusiasm and expertise,”
says Eudaly, explaining how her business can survive in the shadow
of Powell’s. “I like to think of it as an information
trading post. Between the titles we carry, the literary and art
events and the little things like the free rack and the bulletin
board there are a number of ways to interact and benefit from the
well as being a place where bookstores flourish, Portland is also
a home to many artists, writers and filmmakers, with Gus Van Sant,
Todd Haynes and Chuck Palahniuk having made it their home. The Fight
Club author has even written an autobiographical guide to the town.
Entitled Fugitives and Refugees, the book examines Palahniuk’s
rise to stardom as well as detailing where he has been beaten up
and odd sights to see, such as the Self-Cleaning House.
author and publisher Matthew Stadler believes that the cheap rent
in Portland is the reason that so many small bookshops can survive,
as well as why so many writers and artists can make ends meet there,
alternating bar shifts with sessions at the studio or laptop. His
Clear Cut Press often brings different disciplines together, resulting
in exhibitions, readings and screenings, as well as fostering a
spirit of co-operation that seems to run through this European-feeling
city where everyone knows everyone else.
don’t move to Portland to be number one,” says Stadler.
“If you move to Portland you are clearly comfortable with
being amongst others and not triumphing over them.”
if to demonstrate he details his plans to collaborate with local
filmmaker Matt McCormick on a re-make Fellini’s La Dolce Vita
set on Portland’s industrial waterfront.
funding in the area is generous and the art scene is booming as
a result, with a number of galleries having regenerated the previously
rundown Pearl District in Northwest Portland and others appearing
in vacant office buildings across the city.
visual arts in Portland has as much staying power as books remains
to be seen, but whilst it keeps raining the citizens of Portland
are likely to carry on painting, writing and reading. Only global
warming can stop them now.
City of Books is at 1005 W Burnside St, Portland, OR 97209.
Telephone 503 228 4651. Almost every book you will ever need.
Frenzy, 921 SW Oak St, Portland, OR 97205. Telephone 503 274
1449. Fanzines, small press and independent magazines.
Matthew Stadler’s latest book is The Sex Offender, published
by Avalon. Clear Cut Press can be found at www.clearcutpress.com.