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.

Continue reading “GABST Day 4: The journey to Mecca and back”

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

It’s almost Great American Bookstore Tour time, and I need your help

A photo from my last epic road trip -- a Spring Break 2007 trek to New Orleans. This is about three minutes after I won a bet about how long I could stay on a mechanical bull. As they say, don't threaten me with a good time.
From my last epic road trip — a 2007 trek to New Orleans. This is shortly after I won a bet — with a skeevy stranger — about how long I could stay on a mechanical bull. Don’t threaten me with a good time.

About ten months ago, I began planning a vacation-slash-road-trip that would take me to the western coast of ye olde United States and, more importantly, to six of the greatest independent bookstores our country has to offer. Now, as spring peeks its timid head up over miniature piles of lingering snow-sludge, my literary adventure is a mere nine days away.

That’s right people, it’s Great American Bookstore Tour timeβ€”two weeks, five cities, five bookstores (plus The Strand), one SUV and one CD collection with an average release year of 1999. Here’s the agenda:

My journey begins with two days here, where I’ll have one travel companion, plus the pleasure of interviewing Elliot Bay Book Co. owner Peter Aaron.  (Fun fact: My employer, Reuters, is allowing me to document some of my “How does one keep a bookstore open these days?” findings in a TBD article. Of course, all judgmental city-based commentary and glowing reviews of roadside cheese food products will continue to be documented on ST.)

I anticipate spending my three days in Portland ogling hipsters and eating macrobiotic food, with the exception of the delightful afternoon I’ll get with Miriam Sontz, COO of Powell’s Books. There is a strong possibility I will fall so madly in love with this store that I will inelegantly beg Sontz for permission to stay forever, volunteering to clean bathrooms or stock shelves or stand on the sidewalk and maniacally lure in new customers by screaming things like “Books reading learn good!”

In Portland, I’ll take on two travel companions (these are, by the way, actual friends ….lest you think I have plans to pick up a predetermined number of hitchhikers along the way). Together, and with the help of the aforementioned CD collection, we’ll meander down to San Francisco, where I’ll spend four days, one of which will include a chat with City Lights Books chief buyer Paul Yamazaki.

Shedding my fellow road trippers, I will begin the long and arduous 20-hour drive from San Francisco to Denver, with overnights along the way in Elko, Nevada (a geographically logical stopping place, though I was also swayed by the abundance of casinos) and Salt Lake City (Mormons, natch). After three days of solo travel — if I don’t tweet at least every two hours, please call someone — I’ll spend another two in Denver, where I’ll have the pleasure of speaking with Tattered Cover Book Store CEO Joyce Meskis.

Trading in my trusty steed for a bird of steel again, I’ll fly from Denver to DC, where I hope to chat with Politics & Prose owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, and spend a moderately more calm weekend with friends. Finally, I’ll close out the trip with an exhausted Amtrak ride back up to NYC, armed with trinkets and books and whatever memories haven’t been washed away by nightly carousing and cocktails.

SO HERE IS WHERE YOU COME IN. While I could walk around DC with my eyes closed (not that I wouldn’t get run over by a town car with diplomatic plates; just saying I could technically do it) I have yet to even step foot in the USA west of ….Louisiana? So I need recommendations. If one had but a few brief days in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Denver, where should one dine and drink? What should one do? Are there other bookstores one should check out? Secret divey hole-in-the-wall pubs off the beaten path? Bizarre funky art installations? Inquiring minds want to know. Inquiring minds need to know. Because left to my own devices I’ll be overwhelmed by possibility and end up ordering room service.