There is nothing like walking through these trees, these Portland hillsides.
I’ve been going to Powell’s Books for decades; it’s my favorite bookstore. During my few days in Portland, I went to Powell’s in the afternoons to do a little bookbrowsing and miscellaneous research-trip preparation (and to visit this novel, which arrived home the day I posted about it.)
One of the things I like about Powell’s is the way it mixes new and used books together on the same shelf. So you can find all the copies of a book in one place and pick the one — and the pricepoint — that suits you. There’s a way that this arrangement makes the experience about the books themselves and not about which spending bracket you fall into.
This is echoed even in the featured shelves of award winners and recommendations. New and used books are mixed together here, as well. And the Award Winner shelves don’t only promote this year’s winners, but mix in award winning books and writers from all different timeframes. These books have value and weight and contemporary relevance at Powell’s far after date of publication. Good books resonate. In an era of flash news, it feels good to be someplace where we can circle back on an novel, revisit. Where these books from decades apart are weighted together in the same conversation — alphabetized on the feature shelves so that they stop being temporal and abut each other across time and content.
Powell’s has a whole huge room devoted to its featured shelves and tables — and does a remarkably creative job at recommending books to us. There is a “Choose Your Adventure” table full of books about people traveling to other places, and a “Knockout Narratives” table of essay collections, where Consider the Lobster and Sloane Crosley’s new collection and Marilynne Robinson all feel at home.
Their recommendations in general are robust and wide-ranging, including both the oft-cited new books receiving critical acclaim and well-written new books that have gotten little attention. Because in the end there are so many wonderful new books written, and we wind up reading and hearing about so few. Powell’s allows some of those we’ve missed to resurface. I find things here that I wouldn’t otherwise, and am grateful for the books I come across when I visit.
Powell’s has multiple branches scattered through Portland and one of the most active, ambitious reading series in the country. So huge its main location requires a map and several solid days to explore fully, Powell’s is a cornerstone in our national literary culture.
I am fortunate that it has also been a recurring fixture in my life as a reader. On this visit, I was thinking about how I might write about Powell’s, and I thought about how it’s a place to check in with regularly, to visit and revisit. It’s a part of the rhythm of my reading.
Even during the years when I’m not able to visit in person, Powell’s is my default for ordering books online. And in those moments when you aren’t able to buy from a local bookstore, I urge you to do your online buying from Powell’s, too. Because this bookstore is an integral part of how we think and talk about and read books here in our country, and it’s important that we support it.
Between stops on this research trip, I planned a few days in Portland, Oregon. My extended family is from Portland, and I used to visit every few years. Growing up, I always believed I’d wind up living in Oregon. Still for me, there is a sense of coming home when I go to the Pacific Northwest. My body relaxes into belonging.
On this visit, I stayed at my great-aunt and uncle’s house on the hillside. I love this house — its energy and views and the way it admits daylight. I wish I reserved the word love for places like this one.
I’ve learned on this research trip how important these few days of reflection can be. For the most part, my research has been conducted on this trip at a pretty relentless pace. In between Seattle and Japan, these few days in my great-uncle’s study overlooking the trees gave me an opportunity to gather my thoughts, to process information and impressions.
It felt right to do so in this space that belonged to my great-aunt and uncle, who had their own connections to both Japan and Seattle. In the sunlit quiet of their living room, I looked through their 1930s jazz records, poured tea from their Japanese teapot. It felt good to be connected with them across time through these shared spaces.
I started reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North on this research trip, and I can’t put it down. I also can’t quite manage to carry a copy of it with me (I’ve got to keep my luggage lithe and light on this trip). So I’ve been picking up a copy of Flanagan’s novel every time I set foot in a bookstore and reading a dozen pages of it each time.
His writing is so rich and lyrical. “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” the novel starts. “Dorrigo Evans’ earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother. A wooden church hall. Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women. Women who loved him. Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and over.”
I’m transfixed by the lyricism and syntax of that opening, and by the sense of this writer’s authority . The perspective is unexpected in modern fiction: a third that is both intimate and distant. We occupy a sweep of time.
And there is a sentence like this:
“Backdropped by woodlands of writhing peppermint gums and silver wattle that waved and danced in the heat, it was hot and hard in summer, and hard, simply hard, in winter.”
Which is so perfectly evocative and so fully rendered it takes my breath away.
Set in Tasmania and then in a Japanese POW camp during the war, the novel feels like apt reading for me at this juncture in my story collection — and my research trip.
I cannot wait to see how Flanagan realizes the rest of this novel, which I have ordered from Powells (where I have been reading it the last few days) and which will be waiting for me when I get back home.
Longfellow Books is one of the two best bookstores I visited during my recent trip to Maine. Located in the arts district of Portland, about a block from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house, Longfellow Books is an excellent example of a hardworking urban bookstore with a core focus on serving its local community.
Run by a team of booksellers who clearly know their literature, the bookstore is organized with tables of notable fiction and non-fiction, shelves of new releases, the bookstore’s own bestsellers, and a large table of suggested books along with handwritten recommendations. They don’t rely on outside lists or picks or national bestsellers — an approach that speaks to the store’s confidence in its own selections and in its readership.
There are extensive shelves of new and used fiction, a section devoted to Maine titles, a cluttered community bulletin board, and a large, airy children’s room with a plush green couch.
Longfellow Books is also home to a foster cat, Prince, who is up for adoption. When I stopped in, Prince was nestled up on the couch with a young girl, who was completely absorbed in her novel. A group of fellow children made a point to introduce me to Prince: they knew a lot about him. He likes the couch in the children’s room, and the children, who sit with him reading.
With equal interest and authority, they told me about what they were reading. (They didn’t have favorite books, though, they were careful to tell me. “It’s too hard to choose,” one said.) One of the children slipped and referred to the bookstore as a library, then caught and corrected herself. I could see why she made the mistake: the bookstore, and especially its children’s room, had the comfortable, worn-in feel of an excellent library. It’s a place where children come to discover great books and then lose themselves in them, already three chapters in and completely immersed by the time they leave the store with their purchases.
Longfellow Books knows its literature, its readers, its community — and the store reflects that easy, comfortable confidence. They refer to themselves as “a fiercely independent bookstore.” And in our current bookselling world, thank goodness. Luckily for those of us who live too far afield to curl up with Prince on a regular basis, Longfellow Books also publishes an excellent newsletter with recommendations. For the latest, check out their website.