GABST Day 4: The journey to Mecca and back


So I did a lot of stuff today, but before I get into all of that — donuts, food carts, drinking beer among the innards of a renovated elementary school — let’s take a moment to talk about Powell’s.

So intese was my anticipation for this bookstore that I actually did a little 4-year-old-style jig of joy outside its unassuming front door this afternoon. A legitimate city block in size, Powell’s is four stories high and has an inventory a million books strong. Yes, you heard me right: one. million. books. More importantly, with a copy-per-book average of 2 (per fabulous Powell’s COO Miriam Sontz, who I interviewed for Reuters) the store is at any given time home to approximately 500,000 unique titles, which are impressively organized into a series of color-coded rooms and then further by genre, author, title and edition (hardback, paperback and used). Powell’s — which, by the way, has four additional locations in Portland, plus three airport stores — is in equal measure inspiring and overwhelming, and forces one to reflect on the very institution of book publishing and selling (something like 2 million books are released worldwide each year, which means that despite its intense inventory, Powell’s houses as many books as the planet produces in a mere six months.)

Indeed, where Elliott Bay Book Co. felt devoted to the act of reading — replete with cozy armchairs and wooden tables — Powell’s dedication skews more towards the process of book discovery, and presenting potential readers with a collection so comprehensive and large in scope that one would feel remiss to leave the store without finding something to buy. Leaving Powell’s without a book in tow is like leaving the ocean without getting wet.

My donut
My donut

Of course, Powell’s was only the tail end of the bookstore walkabout on which I led my exceedingly patient friends today. The morning began with a visit to Voodoo Doughnut, where I ate what will inevitably become the cause of an early-onset heart attack, a raised yeast donut with chocolate frosting, Oreos and peanut butter. From there we walked up to Cameron’s Books, a dingy little shop with paperbacks and magazines piled person-high, and exceedingly reasonable prices. Cameron’s curmudgeonly proprietor turned decidedly helpful once I explained my two-week book adventure to him, and pointed me in the direction of Daedalus Books, a primarily used shop in Northwest (which, in addition to its great selection, also smelled pleasingly of bread from the bakery next door). Daedalus’ amazingly nice cashier was also quick with the suggestions, and sent my friends and I off in the direction of Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, a cozy one-room store we hit up after visiting Powell’s and stopping for a delicious lunch truck meal of chicken and rice. Decorated with green leather stools and dim lamps, and fronted by an enormous wooden desk covered in books, Mother Foucault’s was a pretty adorable little indie, like the oversized study-slash-library of a wealthy bibliophile.

Cameron's Books
Cameron’s Books

Having exhausted my friends’ capacity for watching me drool over used paperbacks, I went willingly when our party moved on to the Hawthorne District, a quaint series of bars, restaurants and independent retailers whose overall vibe suggests that Portlandia is, however facetious, not entirely far off. That said, I’ve not yet been to a U.S. city that replicates what this part of Portland has going on: a low-key low-cost and exceedingly chill vibe that makes you want to buy a vintage t-shirt and kick back with some $3 beers (I don’t think I spent more than $3 on any beer in Portland). And so although our evening concluded with a trip to the truly awesome Kennedy School — an architecturally classy elementary school converted into a restaurant, movie theater and series of bars — I can’t help but wish that I had a bit more time in Portland, at least one more afternoon to explore the rest of the city’s quirkier hoods and to follow through on a friend’s recommendation for cheap tacos (sorry Annie!)

Alas, this is it for Portland for now, as tomorrow begins the 11-hour drive to San Francisco. With an eye towards the many hours I’ll spend behind the wheel next week, I plan to take advantage of my travel mates and use tomorrow’s journey to splay out in the backseat of our Jeep SUV, alternating between looking at scenery, reading, and falling asleep/drooling down the front of my shirt. Because that’s what vacations are really about.

Mother Foucault's Bookshop
Mother Foucault’s Bookshop


Bookstores visited: 4
Cameron’s Books and Magazines
Daedalus Books
Mother Foucault’s Bookshop

Books purchased: 8 (I know, it’s getting bad)
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman (Cameron’s)
Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut (Daedalus)
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland H. Bainton (Daedalus)
Women on the Wall, edited by Marshall McClintock (Daedalus)
Beloved, by Toni Morrison (Powell’s)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote (Mother Foucault’s)
Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong (Mother Foucault’s)

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