GABST Days 7 and 8: San Francisco Bookstore Blitz

The poetry room at City Lights
The poetry room at City Lights

Today was my last day in SF, and I started it in the best possible way: at City Lights. For the unfamiliar, CL is this year celebrating its 60th anniversary, and is perhaps most famous for first publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which CL founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who was also the book’s publisher and editor) and manager Shigeyoshi Murao were arrested over back in 1956 (“disseminating obscene literature” and all that). Today the store is home to a skillfully curated collection of books, plus an independent press that continues to put out great literature, poetry, memoirs and books on social and political issues. For a relatively small outfit with a relatively small staff, City Lights has a lot going on.

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GABST Day 6: Escape to Alcatraz

photo (27)
Not a bad way to start the day.

Distracted by blue skies and blue waterfronts, lush trees and chirping birds, I’m a little late to write. Also because last night I fell into wine-fueled deep sleep, the kind that kept me knocked out until the downright shameful hour of 9:30 a.m. So long 7:30 internal alarm clock, you’ve been felled by San Francisco.

SF is a lovely city, as lovely as everyone said it would be, or at least implied with reverential oohs and ahhs when I said I was heading out here. It’s got all the hustle and bustle of a big metropolitan area, while a 20-minute walk from downtown in nearly any direction gives way to boutique shops and eateries, populated with well-dressed and laid back SF residents, sipping cocktails and munching on foodstuffs with the primary ingredient of avocado.

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GABST Day 5: Driving Miss Daisy

I-5, Oregon
I-5, Oregon

Dear I-95,

Longtime user, first-time writer here. I just wanted to reach out to you because I met someone today that I think you would like. More importantly, I met someone with whom I think you should have a conversation, and from whom you could perhaps take away a few tips. A role model if you will; mentor, even.

Her name is I-5, and she’s pretty accessible, with a 24/7 operation spanning the U.S. from Mexico to Canada. And while I of course respect that you’re a busy road, and might not have the time or the inclination to travel cross-country for the mere purpose of a little inter-interstate highway tΓͺte-Γ -tΓͺte, I can’t help but feel that it would be worth your while.

You see, I-5, like you, spans multiple states, and over 1,000 miles. She too shepherds weary travelers from one destination to the other, whether for business, pleasure, or those awkward holidays with distant relatives that fall somewhere in the middle. In short, you two have a lot in common.

But there are some key differences. For example, I-5 is beautiful. Now, I’m not saying you’re ugly per se, just that with all those guard rails and Jersey barriers — to say nothing of the flat and heavily commercialized landscape beyond them — you do leave a little something to be desired, aesthetically speaking. You see, I-5 has mountains and green acres. It has sheep farms and cow farms and horse farms; its rolling hills give way to vast expanses of lush landscape, on top of which sit open skies with heavy fluffy clouds just begging to release the kind of sporadic downpour that forces drivers to keep one hand trained on the windshield wiper controls.

I-5, California
I-5, California

And perhaps most importantly, I-5 is only moderately occupied. Of course, I’m willing to accept that this may not always be the case, or may only be the case between Portland and San Francisco, the 11-hour drive I undertook today. I’m willing to accept that I may have been lucky. But I can’t help but celebrate the mere possibility of such luck, when a decade of driving on I-95 has never, not once, yielded the same infrequency of overbearing 18-wheelers and impatient left-lane drivers. You see, I-95, you’ve always gotten me where I needed to go, but the difference is that I’ve almost always wanted to murder someone by the time I get there.

Anyway, these are just humble suggestions, unsolicited recommendations from a moderately experienced traveler. I’m sure you have your reasons — for being crowded, and bland, and home to about 7.3 million Cracker Barrrels below the Mason-Dixon line. I’m sure it’s difficult being you. Which is why I think you should take some time this summer to pack up shop and head to the West Coast. Pay a visit to I-5 and ask her for some advice. Maybe you can’t get all the rolling hills and scenic cloud cover in one fell swoop, but I’m sure she could at least throw you some sheep farms.

Your friend and longtime neighbor,

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.

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GABST Day 3: On to the next

Mercer Street Books
Mercer Street Books

Another busy day on the Great American Bookstore Tour. After a final morning in Seattle that included a visit to Mercer Street Books, and a walk up one of the steepest hills known to man (and by man I mean me, as I had to stop three times to catch my breath and covertly air out my sweaty t-shirt), Sarah and I got on the road to Portland.

I’ve learned from Seattle not to judge a city by its downtown, and so I’ll reserve my opinions of Portland for tomorrow, after I’ve visited neighborhoods quirky and hipster enough to qualify as authentically PDX. For now I’ll just say that little gets me in the mood for out-of-town adventuring like a free wine and beer hour, which Kimpton Hotels — my Portland stay is at the impressively furnished Monaco — provide on a nightly basis.

I also picked up two new travel companions in Portland, best friends from high school whose decision to accompany me on the Portland/San Fran leg of GABST will cut down on my “eating alone in restaurants” quotient by a significant amount. Together we enjoyed enjoyed dinner and drinks at GrΓΌner, a German/Eastern European spot that had me hooked at “beet-pickled deviled eggs,” and even more drinks at Scooter’s, a downtown dive our waitress recommended with no small amount of trepidation. Two beers and two Jell-O shots later, I’d spent a whopping $9.50 (with tip) and was ready to saunter home and crash in our almost painfully Portland-esque hotel suite. (Like seriously, the lobby has gourmet dog treats.)

Just your average heavily patterned hotel room.
Just your average heavily patterned hotel room.

Having yet to see anything outside a three-block radius of the Monaco, I’m already wishing I’d allotted more time for Portland. And persuaded into the aforementioned Jell-O shots by a boisterous bridesmaid-to-be, whose friend was having her bachelorette party at Scooter’s — on a Tuesday — I also can’t wait to see what Portland has to offer by way of 20-somethings, de facto hipster sister city to Brooklyn that it is.

Anywho, tomorrow it’s on to Powell’s, bastion of books, paradise of pages, labyrinth of literature. As there is a distinct possibility I will get lost and die in Powell’s (intentionally or non is TBD) I just want to say that it’s been a pleasure blogging for you all. I bequeath my cats to my mom and my furniture to my sister. Just please bury me with my books.


Bookstore visited: 1
Mercer Street Books

Books purchased: 2
The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain
An American Dream, by Norman Mailer