In City of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Portland, third-generation Oregonian Gabriel H. Boehmer writes, “If you love books, reading them, recommending them, borrowing them, collecting them, hearing their authors read them, discussing them, even mending them, Portland, Oregon, is your Mecca.”
Boehmer isn't the only one who thinks so. “Portland has always been a big book-reading city. That's one of the reasons I moved here,” said Stephanie Griffin, owner of Portland's 23rd Avenue Books. “Portland has a huge literary community,” echoed Portland-based literary agent Bernadette Baker, who added, “It rains a lot, so there's plenty of time to read.
The rest of the state is equally avid. And Oregonians don't just love books, they love bookstores. The state has more than 40 independents.
Oregon is ranked ninth in area among American states, but its population is disproportionately small and largely concentrated in the Willamette Valley, which extends south from Portland to capital Salem, Oregon's second-largest city, to Eugene, the state's third-largest city and home of the University of Oregon. Other metropolitan areas include the growing city of Bend, in the center of the state, and the Medford area in the south.
A number of Portland's independent mainstays, including Annie Bloom's and Looking Glass, have been fixtures in their neighborhoods for more than 25 years. Synonymous with Portland bookselling is Powell's, the independent behemoth that now has eight stores in six locations in the greater Portland area (as well as a major national online presence). Owner Michael Powell noted that although Powell's is now a small chain, each store is different, with a mix of books tailored to its area.
In Portland, chains are significantly out-numbered by independents. This is partly because Portlanders tend to be unfriendly to big-box stores. Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Costco have been limited to suburbs in part because of pushback from communities. But the layout of Portland reduces the opportunity for big-box stores to get in, since its 40,000-square-foot blocks make it hard for chains to find sufficiently large spaces.
Outside of Portland, chains have had more of an impact on independents. In Corvallis, a town of 55,000 in the Willamette Valley and home of Oregon State University, when Borders announced it was opening a store six years ago, two independents shuttered almost immediately. But Jack Wolcott, who has run Grass Roots Books & Music since 1971, said once Borders opened, his customers became more conscious of supporting his store. Wolcott also responded by forming an Independent Business Alliance with 15 other independently owned, locally operated businesses that has grown to include about 85 firms.
In Eugene, James Squires and Amelia Reising opened Books Without Borders about two and a half years ago, when the store at which they'd previously worked, the Book Mark, closed after 30 years. The Book Mark had faced heavy competition from a new nearby Borders and a Barnes & Noble; it became one of the several independents in Eugene that have closed in the past 10 years. Now Books Without Borders is one of two independents in town selling new books (the other is the University of Oregon bookstore).
So far, chains have barely penetrated Oregon's coastal and vacation communities. In Cannon Beach, about 80 miles west of Portland, the Cannon Beach Book Co. just turned 27 years old. In the Columbia River Gorge area, a vacation destination about 50 miles east of Portland, the Book Stop in Hood River is newer to the scene. Cynthia Christensen opened the store two years ago with 3,000 books from her home library and sells new and used books side by side, à la Powell's. Christensen, whose landlord owns the windsurfing shop next door, said her store is thriving year-round. “I literally get people thanking me every day for opening,” she said.