Lessons learned in an Oregon bookstore

05/06/2010 12:00 AM |

When I was recently in Portland, Ore., I had to go see the world-famous Powell’s Books. I visit bookstores as well as libraries when I am in a new place, and almost all bookstores have something to recommend them. When I was young, I spent a lot of time at the 8th Street Bookstore in Greenwich Village. When I was a young married woman, my husband and I would treat ourselves to dates that included going out to dinner and then walking up to 8th Street to spend a few hours browsing, at first together and then drifting apart into separate sections. Eventually, we would meet up at the cash register and he would offer to pay for all the new books I had picked and carry them home. It was very romantic.

Years later, when the twins were toddlers, I used to take them up to a branch of Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue at 18th Street. Every Saturday morning at 10:30 they had a puppet show, storyteller or magician to entertain children for free. Often they were very good, sometimes they were embarrassingly bad, but at that price, you could hardly complain. There were also bins of remaindered children’s books sold for improbable prices like 19 cents. The children were each allowed to pick out a book for themselves. We got some special favorites that way, like ‘Calico, the Wonder Horse or the Saga of Stewy Stinker’ by Virginia Lee Burton, which contained the memorable line, describing Calico: “She could turn on a dime and give you back change.” I must have read that book a thousand times. I’m not exaggerating.

So there were new books, and remaindered books, and then there were used books. New York had many used-book stores, great big ones like The Strand and tiny ones like the one on Carmine Street, where the heat and lights were usually off to save money, so you took potential purchases close to the grimy windows up front to examine for condition and price. Not that a marked price was particularly significant, because the owner wouldn’t actually sell a book without discounting it, throwing in another title she’d seen you fingering and trying to convince you to buy three or four more.

One thing I love about Greenport is that, small as it is, it has two functioning bookstores. Burton’s sells new books, The Book Scout sells used books and they are both terrific. One interesting thing about Powell’s City of Books in Portland is that new and used books are shelved side by side, so you have the choice of paying more for a pristine copy or less for a pre-thumbed edition. Powell’s City of Books claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. Its website was established in 1994, before Amazon.com. The store occupies a full city block and contains over 68,000 square feet of retail floor space.

It is enormous, but it doesn’t feel impersonal or corporate. The hip young staff is pierced, tattooed and unionized. They do hand-lettered shelf signs about staff picks, with short reviews, and they’re sweetly helpful to newcomers lost in their color-coded maze. Powell’s has its own organizing principles that weave together a numeric system like Dewey or Library of Congress that libraries use, the Book Industry Standards and Communications word headings that most other bookstores use, and their own idiosyncratic color system. There are computers scattered about that actually work with the system and show comprehensible floor plans as well as give you the number, subject and color location of the book you want. It was particularly meaningful to have the Powell’s experience after going to various library conference presentations that advocated ditching the Dewey system and going to a customer-friendly, word-based classification system. Libraries can learn a lot from bookstores.

When I was there I was looking for a book called ‘The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring’ by Richard Preston. The friends I was staying with recommended it and it was a perfect book to be reading while seeing an old-growth Western rainforest for the first time. The book is about the people who developed and used techniques for climbing into the canopies of giant redwoods to do scientific research on an ecosystem that had never been studied before. It was incredibly dangerous and difficult work, but how fantastically beautiful to be up in trees so big they had trees and huckleberry bushes growing on them. And there’s a love story, some falls and near-death experiences to balance out the descriptions of lichens and measurement of biomass.

So I found, bought and read that book in time to come back home and read the Long Island Reads selection ‘River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey’ by Candice Millard. It was a month for being stuck in rainforests, but this one was the Amazon (river basin, not website) and there were murders, piranhas and waterfalls. Millard came to Long Island and gave a terrific talk at Hampton Bays Public Library. She looks very young to have worked at National Geographic for years before taking several years off to research this book, but she did a wonderful job of putting this strange adventure into historical and human context.

Many, many Long Islanders read this book in April in our local Big Read, and our book discussion participants were given their own free copies to keep, but you can go to your local bookstore and buy a copy for yourself. Read it and start conversations with perfect strangers from Mineola to Montauk. We are an island of readers.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist, radio commentator and newspaper columnist.