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Easy life that speaks volumes by Iain Aitch

There 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.

Despite 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.

Ask 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.

This 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.

One 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.

“We 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.”

It 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 everything.

One 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.

“People 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 space.”

As 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.

Local 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.

“You 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.”

As 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.

Arts 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.

Whether 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.

Powell’s City of Books is at 1005 W Burnside St, Portland, OR 97209. Telephone 503 228 4651. Almost every book you will ever need.

Reading 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.

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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