Me and the City of Books
One: Coming Home
We stopped at the Hawthorne Fish House as soon as we got to Portland, after a month away from the Pacific Northwest. It was cold and dark out. I didn’t relish another month of winter. I needed a bit more sustenance than food could provide this night. I wanted to go to Powell’s City of Books.
I first encountered Powell’s about twenty-five years ago. Mario and I moved to the Oregon coast from Michigan in 1982. A friend of ours let us live in her grandfather’s house for nothing more than the cost of insurance, which was about $120 a year. The house was the definition of ramshackle. I remember walking into the house for the first time after taking a train and then a bus across country to get there: I was hit with this unmistakable odor of must and mold. I was three thousand miles from home, give or take, and I couldn’t go back.
We could hear ocean if we opened the back windows, and the beach was a five minute walk away. The price was right, but it probably wasn’t the best place for me. It had termites which swarmed out of our bedroom for weeks during certain times of the year. It had fleas that awakened--or hatched out--as soon as we turned on the heat. (No one had lived in the house for some years before we got there.) The musty smell never went away. It was a depressing little house, but we were grateful for it.
It was about a five hour drive to Portland from our little town on the coast. We only made that drive about once a year. And we always went to Powell’s. When we first started going to the store, it was much smaller and labyrinthian. You could find almost anything you were looking for, often for less than a buck. Back then, it seemed as though everyone who worked for Powell’s had gone to snot school. No one ever wanted to help us.
Eventually Mario and I moved to the Columbia River Gorge, and we began going to Powell’s more regularly because it was only an hour away. The store began getting bigger. Sometimes during the expansion I couldn’t come for months at a time--maybe even a year once--because of the chemical smells from the remodeling. Soon, Powell’s expanded beyond the block and opened up other bookstores in town.
Whenever we went to Powell’s, I would fantasize about one day going into the store and finding my books there. And then it happened. One day, I walked by the literature and poetry section and up the steps to where the genre fiction was. My book was there. What a rush!
The years went by and another book came out and another and I always loved going to Powell’s and seeing them on the shelf.
Powell’s began to change in other ways, too. One day I was looking for a book in the nature section. A twenty-something Powell’s employee was in the same aisle on a ladder putting books away. I heard her say, “Do you need some help?”
I looked around. I had been coming to Powell’s for fifteen years and no one had ever asked me if I needed anything.
I said, “Are you talking to me?” (No, not a la DeNiro.)
“Yes,” she said.
“No one here has ever asked me if I needed help,” I said. “In fact, people have gone out of their way not to help.”
I know how to win friends and influence people.
“We’re trying to change that,” she said. She sounded very annoyed with me.
“No, I don’t need any help,” I said. She seemed very glad to get away from me.
Powell’s was changing, but the old guard remained. When Coyote Cowgirl came out, I called and asked if they would be interested in having me come in a do a reading. The booker practically sneered when he said, “We don’t do genre.” I laughed. He sounded so Machiavellian that it was funny. That same year, Charles de Lint came to town to do a reading and he told them he wanted me to read with him. So I did.
It was a strange evening. I was recovering from a nasty staph infection which made my back look like elephant skin, plus the itching had kept me awake for about six weeks. My nose was also swollen to about twice its normal size from nasal polyps. Think Quasi Moto and you’ve got the idea. We had dinner with Charles and a couple other people. It was at a restaurant Mario and I had raved about, but no one liked the food. (That was the last time we ever went. It went out of business soon after.)
My reading went well as far as I could tell. Charles read and he was great. Then we sat at a table together to sign books. A few things about that night stick out in my mind. And remember as I tell you these things that I was on drugs (strong antibiotics), had been sick for weeks, and looked like an elephant and Quasi Moto in a red silk blouse. I may have been slightly cranky or overly-sensitive. (I have never worn that silk blouse since.) People were lined up to get their books signed. Most people bought Charles’ books, of course. And I didn’t mind that. I was thrilled to be sitting next to him.
But then this person came up to Charles and said her name and who she was with. I recognized the name. She had given my book a snarky review. I don’t remember now what she actually wrote except it included the word “ugh.” I don’t like bad reviews--no writer does, I imagine. But I hate reviews where they just seem to take delight in being nasty. Every writer knows that they should never answer reviews, they should never discuss reviews, and they should just keep mum about reviews; otherwise the writer looks bad. That’s what we’ve always been told.
Not so much me that night. I said, “Oh you’re the one who gave me that nasty review.”
She smiled and tried to talk to Charles. She said something about it just being her opinion or some such stuff. I told her I thought she had gone over the line and that she didn’t have to be so snotty. Something like that. I can only imagine what Charles thought as he sat there signing her books and hearing me berate her.
She finally got away. Soon after a librarian I knew showed up. I had known she was a fan of Charles de Lint’s work, so I had contacted her to let her know he was coming to Powell’s; I said I would be happy to introduce her. She came up to the table with a friend of hers and I introduced Charles to them. They were both giggling, like star-struck teenagers. She didn’t even look at my book; she didn’t even seem to see me, except for me to introduce her to Charles. I began feeling angry and resentful toward her.
Ahhh, don’t you hate when pettiness creeps into your life?
But Powell’s was more than a place where I could come and see my own books. I came there to find books written by other people. For nearly twenty years, I was a book selector for my library district, so I would come to Powell’s to keep up with what was new. What was old. What was borrowed. What was blue.
My relationship with Powell’s has been complex over the years. But overall, what Powell’s books has contributed to my life has been more good than bad. Over the years when we’ve needed money, we’ve always been able to get a few bucks by selling our old books to them. When we’re flush, we then buy more books.
I have come to Powell’s when I was depressed and needed comforting. I have come to Powell’s when I had a few extra bucks. I came to Powell’s when I needed to do research. I came to Powell’s so that I could walk down the literature aisles and run my fingers along the spines of the books and dream that my stories would be there one day. I went to Powell’s when I was looking for answers.
Sometimes I stayed five minutes. Sometimes I stayed for hours. Often I had mini-epiphanies or revelations. Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I cried. But all in all over the last twenty-five years or more, Powell’s has been a part of my life.
In Me and the City of Books, I want to document over the next year (more or less) my travels to and within the city of books.
And my first trip to Powell’s in 2009 happened after dinner on our way home from a month long writing retreat in Arizona. It was after 9:00 p.m. I’m not sure why I wanted to go. I think I was trying to stall the inevitable end to our retreat and our vacation. Now we would have to go back to “real” life.
For those of you who have never been to Powell’s Books, let me describe it to you a bit. It is in downtown Portland off Burnside Street and it takes up a city block. From Powell’s website, this is how they begin to describe the City of Books: “The City stocks more than a million new and used books. Nine color coded rooms house over 3,500 different sections.” They say 80,000 people a day browse their shelves in person or via the internet.
On this particular night, I came into the store from the Couch and Eleventh entrance. (That’s pronounced “cooch” not “kou ch” like the sofa thing.) Mario was shopping at Whole Foods. I walked down into the Orange Room. Hardly anyone was around. Ahhhh! It felt peaceful after our long road trip.
I went to the cooking section. I love looking in the cookbooks. I don’t eat or cook like anyone else I know and I can’t eat most of the dishes in the cookbooks, but I still like looking. Sometimes I stare at the books and imagine what it would be like to eat whatever I’d like. Especially the cookie and cupcake books. They’re so pretty. When I look at them, I think, “Mmmm. Happy people must be able to eat all the cookies and cupcakes they want.”
When I was a little girl, I remember thinking, “When I grow up, I’m going to have ice cream any time I want.”
I did grow up. (I think.) And now I never eat ice cream.
I haven’t been able to smell anything for the last fifteen years, except for a few days here and there in the last three years. When I got sinus surgery three years ago, my sense of smell did begin to come back, but it is gone more than it is back.
I stare at cookbooks and imagine what it will be like once I can smell! Life is much more sensual when one can smell. I stood looking at the cookbooks and wondered what the hell I was doing there. I needed to get home. I had to unpack. I had to do all those things I had to do.
Sometimes we talk about moving away from the Pacific Northwest. I always say, “But we’d have to leave Powell’s.”
Good grief. It’s just a bunch of books in a nondescript building on the shores of Tenth, Burnside, Couch, and Eleventh.
I picked up Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. I had wanted this book since it came out, but I kept waiting for a paperback version. Or a used copy. This book had no bookjacket, just some words on a pale yellow cover: ALICE WATERS THE ART OF SIMPLE FOOD Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. In-between FOOD and Notes was a line drawing of a basket of groceries. On the back of the book were Alice’s guidelines for eating, cooking, and living well: Eat locally & sustainably; East seasonally; Shop at farmers’ markets; Plant a garden; Conserve, compost & recycle; Cook simply; Cook together; Eat together; Rememember food is precious.
I liked that. Those were pretty much my guidelines, too.
I saw another cookbook I had been lusting after: David Tanis’ A Platter of Figs and other recipes. I had first seen it in Santa Cruz. It was too expensive though. I needed to wait until a used copy came back or it went into soft cover. I flipped through it. A lot of meat dishes that I would never make, yet I liked his stories of meals he had had. When my family gets together, we often talk about meals we’ve eaten. I like talking about food. I like reading about food. Sometimes I’ll start talking about food and Mario’s eyes will glaze over. I know that I am geeky about food.
I’m not a gourmet. My palate is too diminished because of the loss of my sense of smell. I love simple food. I love making simple food. I love eating with other people and enjoying the camaraderie that comes with sharing a meal together. I think a wonderful desert can be an apple or a peach sliced up and put on a pretty plate. On the cover of A Platter of Figs are two figs. Except for the fact that this man cooks for a living and is a gourmet chef, I suppose, it sounded like we both believed in simple foods.
What the heck. We were still on vacation. I could use some nourishment. I picked up the books and headed for the cashier.
A young man behind one of the cash registers motioned me over to him.
I handed him the two books. “We’ve been gone six weeks and I had to stop here first on our way home,” I said. I was feeling a bit giddy. “We missed Powell’s. How was everything during the big snow storm?”
He rolled his eyes. “You know people in Portland,” he said. “They see a little snow and everything closes down.”
“You didn’t lose electricity?”
“No,” he said, “just a little snow.” He looked at my books. “This one is great.” A Platter of Figs.
“You liked it?” I asked.
“Yes, oh and Alice Waters,” he said. “You can’t go wrong with Alice Waters.”
I smiled at him. I remembered the bad old days when employees at Powell’s didn’t speak to the customers.
“No, you can’t go wrong,” I said.
I gave him some money, thanked him, and then I went out into the night.
Felt just like I was home.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Me and the City of Books