Tag: Powell’s Books

Portland: Still weird after all these years.

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.

Line up and get the old mouth watering.

Line up and get the old mouth watering.

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.

I'm confused.

I’m confused.

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.

Bacon...do I see Bacon!

Bacon…do I see Bacon!

Captain Crunch on a doughnut?

Captain Crunch and Fruit Loops on a doughnut?

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.)

12 Oreos on a doughnut? Yep.

12 Oreos on a doughnut? Yep.

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.

The PC police have not visited this place yet.

The PC police have not visited this place yet.

The doughnut garden.

The doughnut garden.

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.

The top floor.

New arrivals.

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.


My bounty.

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.

"We don't have the Brooklyn Bomber today...but we do have this."

“We don’t have the Brooklyn Bomber today…but we do have this.”

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.

Music stop.

Music stop.

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.

Time for me to write my annual bad poem.

Time for me to write my annual bad poem. An iced Chai tea? I might have to turn in my “man card” if I keep buying Aztec Camera albums and drinking iced Chai.

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.

Oh, there is another Powell's?

Oh, is there another Powell’s?

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.

Yoga in the park by law must be done without a shirt in Portland.

Yoga in the park by law must be done without a shirt in Portland.

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.

Portland: Keeping it Weird

So what does one do after spending four hours in a bookstore? Well, one might eat a little food. Portland offers too many food options, so I keep it simple and go to the same place every time, Kornblatt’s on 23rd. Kornblatt’s is a New York style deli. The deli is not very big but there is seating for about 200 people all wedged into the space of disco dance floor.

The Kornblatt’s menu.

I ordered the “seasonal” sandwich the Brooklyn Bomber (fried latka, grilled onions, melted cheese, beef brisket, on a sweet bun). I don’t what season it needs to be to order a sandwich that has nothing seasonal in it, but you will notice that there is not a picture of this sandwich because as soon as the plate hit the table my mind went blank and I inhaled the sandwich in under ten minutes. This was not a little sandwich either, but when it was gone I felt a pang of regret. It might have been the 12,000 calories I just consumed bumping into my stomach walls, but more likely it was the realization that the sandwich was gone.

We then hiked back to the car which was parked about five blocks away, 23rd Avenue is a busy little area on the west side of downtown. It is also another example of how Portland gets it right. The entire area is surrounded by old houses that have been fixed up, painted and now create a lovely little village feel.

After lunch it is always time for a coffee and some writing. The best place for this activity is Hawthorne. On the way to Hawthorne we always stop at Music Millennium where I remember what record stores once were. The loss of music stores makes me feel like singing a few verses of American Pie (not that stupid movie, but the song my Don McLean.)

The Bagdad Theater, the only part of Bagdad that we didn’t bomb. One of the cornerstone buildings in the Hawthorne area.

The coffee and writing ritual has developed over the years, but my friend and I exchange little words and ideas and then write something. Usually it is poetry, but this year we went with ye ole prose.

The sour fruits of our labor.

Hawthorne is a great little neighborhood also. It is one of the funky areas of Portland where people my age feel older. There is also a smaller Powell’s books. Yes, I did go into the bookstore and look at more books, but for once I didn’t buy anything. I also saw a women who embodied the Hawthorne neighborhood: about six feet tall, blonde spiked hair, yellow cowboy boots, denim knee-length shorts, tight yellow tank-top, completely covered with tattoos from mid neck to top of the yellow boots.

After our writing it is time for a walk in Laurelhurst Park. This is a great little neighborhood park where there is a off-leash dog area and plenty of space for people to play frisbee or just absorb the sunshine.

Two laps around Laurelhurst Park.

Why do I end up at the Rhinelander to eat dinner? I don’t really know. Maybe it is the cheese fondue, maybe it is trying to recapture something I loved about Germany, maybe it is just what we normally do. It doesn’t really matter, because the final stop before heading back is always the Rhinelander.

Round two of eating too much.

Did I eat too much? Yes, and I had desert also.

If I ate this way every day would I die of a heart attack? Yes.

Are there 20 other great neighborhoods in Portland that I missed? Yes.

Is the downtown one of the coolest, greatest examples of urban renewal in America? Yes.

Is the waterfront awesome? Yes.

Could I spend a week there and just wander from micro-pub to micro-pub? Yes.

Will I be returning to Portland next year at the end of May? Yes.

My Favorite Places: Powell’s Bookstore

Portland, Oregon is home to the greatest bookstore in the world. Now I have not been to all the bookstores in the world but Powell’s, in downtown Portland, is everything a bibliophile could want in a bookstore. As the Romans said, “It isn’t the size of the bookstore, it is what you do with it.” Powell’s is a full city block in girth and six floors in length. Well, Powell’s has size and they know what to do with it.

English: Powell's City of Books NW Entrance- P...

Each year I take a pilgrimage to Powell’s with a friend. Tradition dictates that the journey takes place in May and we spend at least four hours wandering through the store. Does that sound like too much time in a bookstore? Well, you probably haven’t been to Powell’s, four hours is barely enough time to scratch the surface. Rows and rows of poetry, thousands of books on Shakespeare, enough history to make the librarians at Alexandria jealous, kids books, books on farming, knitting, even boring crap like math has a full section. Pick up a map of the bookstore when you enter the building and you should be able to find your way around. You can park in the Powell’s garage and they will validate an hour of parking if you buy something. If you make it out of Powell’s without a purchase you are a bad person and if you are there less than an hour you are an idiot.

The rare book room on the sixth floor can cause heart palpitations. I saw a first edition Catcher in the Rye there, I wasn’t allowed to touch it, but I saw it. ($3,500.00 if you want to get me something for Christmas.) Oh, there are some Hemingway 1st editions, some Ken Kesey 1st editions, and lots and lots of old books that make me wish I was rich.

There is a café in the store on the second or third floor…it is almost in between the second and third floor…just walk toward the coffee smell and you will find it. The café serves your typical northwest coffee with a hint of Portland style. Portlanders (Portlandians?) are unique people. Don’t judge a Portlander by their cover; even the most tattooed and pierced member of the Portland tribe is friendly. The staff at Powell’s may look like they just escaped from a fire-eating-circus and freak show, but they did not. The strange haircuts, the odd glasses, the lack of deodorant, the eyebrow piercings and the earlobes stretched to extremes by gauges are all part of the charm of Portland. These people love books and are happy to help you. They are not snotty, know-it-all-elitists, they are like your weird aunt or uncle who always knows what book you should read next.

People from outside of the northwest need to know one thing when traveling to Portland: it is not Seattle. The two cities are vastly different and so are the people. Portland is relaxed and nearly European in feel. Seattle is a little colder, a little more uptight and a little more business focused. If you took Portland and Seattle and mixed them together you would get San Francisco. If you like the relaxed quality of SF, then Portland is your city. If you like the business suit and Starbucks, then Seattle is your spot.

If you ever visit Portland you must visit Powell’s, it is one of my favorite places. I will be there this year on May 18th,look for me in the rare book room.

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