Summer is in the air and a young man’s mind turns to thoughts of Powell’s City of Books in Portland…in this case a middle-aged mind turns there also. My annual sojourn to Portland, Oregon took place this past week. I’m not sure when my friend Peter and I began these yearly trips, but we must be approaching 10 years at this point. A decade of Portland visitation makes the trip officially a Tradition with a capital T and should be penciled in on everyone’s calendar as a national holiday. I will call it Bookstore Day and everyone should spend a few hours in their local/independent bookstore on a sunny Friday in May.
This year we decided to add a couple of wrinkles to our usual path. This year we started our Portland stop at Voodoo Doughnuts.
Now if you have not heard of Voodoo Doughnuts that is okay, the line is long enough already. Stay away and keep going to Dunkin Doughnuts, but if you want to cut your mouth open on a doughnut covered in deadly Captain Crunch then this is your place. The line outside the shop wasn’t too long, but I started having German Bakery flashbacks and was worried that when it was my turn to order I was going to get yelled at for doing it wrong. Like a German bakery, Voodoo Doughnuts is a cash only establishment, but unlike Germany you don’t have to know what you are ordering a full week before arriving.
The menu is a bit overwhelming, but I managed to look in the rotating jewel case and find two doughnuts that I could identify. “I’ll take one of those bacon numbers and the thing covered in Oreos,” I said.
“Do you want the peanut butter, chocolate, or regular Oreo doughnut,” the Voodoo lady asked me. I felt a little panicky and wondered if she was about to break into German and begin to berate me for not knowing which doughnut I wanted.
“Regular,” I blurted out. In the end it didn’t matter which doughnut I ordered because I could only finish the bacon one.
I had a chance to look at a few of the other doughnuts while I waited and began to wonder why someone would order a Captain Crunch doughnut. Eating Captain Crunch is a lot like eating hot pizza, you know you are going to damage your mouth and you should slow down, but you can’t help yourself and end up burning or cutting your mouth because you are such a pig. (I guess the “you” in these sentences is actually me.)
After getting our doughnuts we went out to the doughnut garden (a sort of beer garden for doughnuts) and began eating. I looked at my two options and started having thought about dying of diabetes and loosing all my teeth. I thought the bacon doughnut was probably healthier than the Oreo one, so I ate it. Yes, it was good. I then considered eating the Oreo one, but there were a lot of Oreos on the doughnut, so many that I thought I would eat it and go into some diabetic coma. So I opted for saving it for later.
Hopped up on 4,000 calories of straight sugar we headed back to the car and then over to Powell’s.
The red brick building containing all of those books is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is the only place in the world where I don’t mind shopping for an extended period. I could spend a whole day in Powell’s and I think on one visit we spent seven hours there. Our more recent visits the bookstore have been more efficient.
For people who have never been to Powell’s it can be overwhelming, but don’t worry books can’t hurt you…unless they are thrown at you, and then some of the larger books at Powell’s could hurt you. The good new is that I have not seen a single book thrown at Powell’s so I believe it is okay to say that you are safe to wander around without fear. The floors are coded with different colors: Yellow (sci/fi fantasy) Blue (Fiction) etc… We usually start on the top floor: Drama, Art, and Music. The top floor also has the rare book room, which looks like it has had gastric bypass surgery. The rare book room is about 1/5 of the size it used to be. Now the rare books are spread out throughout the store which I just don’t like. I like going into the quiet little book room and feeling like I am someplace special. Now I feel more like I am visiting an old person’s attic, which can be interesting, but there isn’t the same reverent quality as when all the rare books were in one place like the good-old-days.
This year we started in the Travel section. I have tried to find a good, small map of Vienna and one of Prague. I don’t like the big floppy maps, I like the little book looking things. My favorites are the Knopf Map Guides that have little sectioned off maps. The Map Guides look like little books and when I am lost in a foreign city (which happens frequently when I travel) I can find a tiny corner to hide in and then figure out where the hell I am without drawing too much attention to myself. I always feel bad for anyone who has a full tourist map. They stand there on some street corner, blocking foot traffic with the wind blowing their pathetic map around, and looking confused. I cannot walk by confused people without asking if they need help finding something. (I do this most often in Seattle, but there have been a few times I have intervened in Paris.)
I found my Knopf Map Guides and then fought with the temptation to buy more travel guides. I have a problem with buying guides, right now I have four guides for Scandinavia. Why do I need four? I don’t, what I really need is five.
After meandering through the top floor we dallied through the Purple floor where I managed for the first time not to pick up a book. My partner in crime did manage to find a few historical books. Soon his basket was overflowing with big, fat books and his right arm was getting stretched to its maximum length. He wanted to do some studying on Chaucer over the summer and there really aren’t very many short, pithy books on Chaucer. There are many, many Chaucer books that weigh over five pounds. If someone ever tossed Canterbury Tales at your head they could be charged with attempted murder.
I was saving up my basket space for the fiction room. I had a list of about 12 books to check out and before long I had chopped off a few items from my wish list. Dorothy Parker is someone I know very little about, and I wanted to read something by her or about her, but after looking through the books by and about her I decided that I no longer wanted to know anything about her. I did grab the new Salman Rushdie novel Joseph Anton and have already fallen in love with it. Before I knew it, my basket was overflowing and our visit was nearly over.
This is when we do what fiscally responsible people do, we head into the café, get a cup of coffee, and decided what books to keep. I kept all of mine and my friend disposed of about half of his, his basket was still full though. We checked out, I spent enough to get free parking and then we headed up to 23rd Avenue for lunch. We always eat at Kornblatt’s. It is not elegant dining, it is a New York deli kind of thing. I saw the Brooklyn Bomb was still on their specials menu and looked no further. The only problem was that they were out of the bread used to make a Brooklyn Bomb. I was sad, but the waitress suggested I try Pavarotti‘s Stomach. I know very little about Pavarotti (he is dead, he sung opera, he was Italian, he was a large man, in college we called the student from Italy Pavarotti) but I took the waitress’ suggestion and soon had this sitting in front of me.
My Voodoo doughnut was almost fully digested, so I dug in and destroyed Pavarotti’s Stomach. It was pretty good and probably healthier than my breakfast even though the sandwich was covered with about a half pound of cheese. There were “vegetables” under the cheese (onions and peppers).
After the lunch stop it was off to Cafe Yumm to find the mythological Yumm Sauce. I would go into detail here, but this post is already too long and if you want Yumm sauce you can order it online.
Once the Yumm Sauce was in hand, we crossed the mighty Willamette River and headed to East Portland and to Music Millennium. I bought embarrassingly bad music. I don’t know what wave of nostalgia hit me, but soon I found myself with a Pat Benatar’s Greatest Hits album, an Aztec Camera Greatest hits, and Son Volt’s new album that is either going to have to grow on me or I will have to start wearing cowboy boots and buying big belt buckles.
After Music Millennium, Tradition dictates that we go the East Hawthorne, sit in the Starbucks, and write poetry. I usually write bad poetry, and since that is a Tradition I stuck to my usual form. What we do is write three random ideas on little pieces of paper and then exchange the ideas. We then spend about 30 minutes trying to make a poem from the ideas. The quality of my poems usually end up somewhere on the poetry spectrum between 13 year-old-girl poetry and death metal lyrics…leaning towards 13 year-old girl poetry.
After we finish our poems we always stroll down East Hawthorne. East Hawthorne is a little like Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. It isn’t as hilly, or architecturally interesting, or historically important, or famous, but it is just as gritty. On a nice sunny day this gritty quality brings out the dirty hippies and they populate most of the street corners playing bongos. I like dirty hippies. I think dirty hippies are cool, but I really hate the bongo thing. Playing a bongo is akin to playing the cowbell; It takes no talent and very little rhythm. If you want to pry my valuable change from my pocket then it is time to learn a real instrument like a harmonica or slide trombone.
After walking by the hippie scene, we found ourselves in a branch office of Powell’s. Where I generally walk around and look at books without the intention of buying anything. This “little” Powell’s is about the size of the largest independent bookstore in Seattle which is a little depressing. Seattle is a much larger city than Portland and should have a bookstore that is much larger than Portland’s and I’m not talking about Barnes and Noble, I’m talking about a bookstore with some character. Bookstores are a reflection of our communities and if the only bookstore you have access to is a chain, then I feel a little bad for you. I don’t want to sound too much like a book snob (okay, I don’t mind sounding like a book snob) but the reason independent bookstores are superior is because the owners care about books. They love books, and they thoughtfully buy and sell books. The really good ones introduce you to books you never would have picked up at your local B and N, because B and N only sells things that are already successful.
Okay, enough of that rant.
After our second book run we always walk over to Laurelhurst Park and take a two lap stroll of the park. We have had a couple rainy days in our ten years, but we are not made of sugar, we will not melt, and we live in the Pacific Northwest and if you live in the PNW and don’t like a little liquid sunshine, then it is time to pack your bags and head for Nevada.
Laurelhurst Park is a great little city park. The best part of Laurelhurst is that it gets used. People are running, playing frisbee, walking their babies, slack-lining, letting their dogs run wild in the wild dog area, and doing shirtless yoga. I even saw three little kids rolling in the grass which was adorable until I heard one of them say something about rolling in dog poop, but it is Portland, smelling like dog poop is not frowned upon like it would be in other places.
It was a glorious day, sunshine and 70 degrees. Portland is about the best place on Earth on a day like this.
We ended our day by eating Mexican food along East Hawthorne. It was another break with Tradition, but I don’t think either of us could handle the usual (a German restaurant with heavy food), so I sat in the sunshine eating fish tacos and mi amigo ate an enchilada.
The day was just about perfect. We found great parking, we ate good food, we bought books, but most importantly we spent time together. Traditions get slightly altered over time, and so do friendships, but sometimes things shouldn’t change.