Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bookish Meanderings in the Land of the Tattooed (and pierced)

The morning came late and I was happy to have the extra hour with the time change (do we ever get those hours back?). After writing a little while I headed out into the streets. Not having a car I was relegated to public transportation which, in Portland, means the superb light rail system know as The MAX (Metropolitan Area Express).

Before the short ride over the Willamette river into town, I stopped by a local favorite for breakfast: Milo's City Cafe near the Lloyd Center Mall. They have a great selection of unique breakfast dishes to compliment tried and true favorites, and I couldn't help but have one of their tasty mimosas to give breakfast a little kick in the pants. The place is awesome and I ended up eating breakfast there every day I was in Portland. Usually I shoot for more diversity, but sometimes you just can't argue with success.

The Max stop was a short walk from Milo's, so after a great meal and 3 or 5 cups of excellent coffee to counterbalance the mimosa, I started off in that direction. Due to the proximity of the city, the MAX is free to downtown Portland from the Lloyd Center area, which I found extremely commuter friendly. The clean, smooth riding trains offer ample seats and have a unique bike rack setup inside each of the doors to accommodate the many two wheel rider-commuters.

Speaking of which, Portland must be the bike riding capital of the Universe. There are as many bicycles clogging the main arteries during rush hour as there are cars. Traffic laws in the state give these commuting pedalers the right of way, which makes for some interesting altercations and no small bit of occasional controversy. These indulgent laws have made some cyclists prone to scoff at laws not so indulgent (like stop signs and traffic lights), so the cops have cracked down. I saw three separate bicyclists "pulled over" by police cars throughout my first day in Portland, a sight I have never seen even once in NYC or Philly on any occasion.

The MAX train pulled up just as I was approaching the stop. I jumped aboard to enjoy the view of downtown as we crossed the river into Portland. Portland is a medium size city with a distinctly small city feel. Downtown sits along the western banks of the Willamette River and is backed by the verdant hills of Washington and Forest Parks.

Washington Park, on the hills above the west side of town, is home to the Oregon Zoo, the Portland Japanese Garden and the famed International Rose Test Garden. This beautifully tiered garden offers excellent views above the city looking east to Mt. Hood and (on a clear day) north to Mt. St. Helen's and is one of the main reasons why Portland is often referred to as The City of Roses.

Above left: Downtown Portland. Above Right: Cameron's Books

My first stop was the funky and recently (and perhaps not fully) gentrified area in the low numbered streets near the river south of the Burnside Bridge. Here I stopped in to visit Cameron's Books and Magazines, claimed as "Portland's oldest used bookstore". This distinctly old school used bookstore has been open since the late 1920's. Current owner Jeff Frase been running the show for the last 20 years or so.

Above Left: Jeff Frase, owner of Cameron's Books. Above Right: Cameron's interior

The store has an interesting selection/conglomeration of books, magazines and ephemera that, while perhaps more than gently used, offer a diverse range of titles you don't often see. Even more interesting are the magazine collections, filed by date, stashed away from public view in the back room. These include complete collections of Life Magazine, The New Yorker, Playboy, Look, Post, Time, Newsweek, and many magazines I've barely even heard of. It's a pretty cool collection and the store still buys "good" books and magazines from customers each and every day.

Above: Cameron's magazine collection; away from public view.

Directly across the street from Cameron's is one of my favorite stops for slow cooked food in Portland: Mother's Bistro & Bar. Although it hadn't been that long since breakfast, I couldn't resist a bowl of Belle's Chicken Noodle soup and an perfectly chilled pint of Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale. Ah, Portland, city of superlative food and beer.

Moving on a pied, I made my way west towards the center of town. Of course, when one speaks of Portland and books, the first name to come to mind is Powell's City of Books. But hold yer horses there pardner. While Powell's is a nationally recognized landmark bookstore, it is just one of many cool alternatives for used and indie books in this most left-leaning of locales. This is made abundantly clear when you peruse the helpful Portland Area Booksellers Directory for new, used and out-of-print books published by the Portland Area Used Booksellers Association (PAUBA).

Armed with their handy printed pamphlet of purveyors of printed prose I was headed up to my second stop on the list: Daedelus Books. Walking around Portland is trip in and of itself. While tattoos and piercings are common in any major US city, the sheer degree of decorated humanity is on a much grander scale here.

Heading west on West Burnside towards Nob Hill, I couldn't help but wonder if the spiderweb tattooed across one young gentleman's multi-pierced face would hamper his efforts at gainful employment as an account executive, or if the full neck, breast and sleeve tattoo covering the upper half of one young lady's torso might frighten her grandchildren when she takes them to the pool 40 years from now. One can only speculate.

I climbed the hill and waded into the beautiful, tree-lined streets of Nob Hill. Most of the mansions in this pricey Alphabet Historic District have been converted over to apartments. Of those remaining, a few have been restored to their original early 20th century beauty (chah-ching!) with a few remaining untouched like homages to Sunset Boulevard (the movie, not the street).

Above left: Daedalus Books. Above Right: Daedalus counter.

Daedalus Books is stashed away a couple of blocks north of W. Burnside at 20th and N.W. Flanders. Portland native Matt Groenig based many of the names of his Simpsons characters on street names in this district (Ned Flanders, the bully Kearny, Reverend Lovejoy, Mayor Quimby) and Deadalus Books offers a great little oasis of reading amidst the trendy high end boutiques and fine dining establishments in the area.

Above left: Daedalus Books. Above right: Daedalus Internet warehouse.

The store has a great selection of academic books, philosophy, history, art and Jewish studies with their very own Internet warehouse (which is even larger than the store itself) in back. They offer new and used books and true to their listing, pay the highest prices for quality used books. It's a pretty cool setup and great aesthetics to match.

After perusing around Daedalus for a while, I headed back down the hill, stopping off for a quick lunch of enchiladas and a margarita (or two) at the nearby Mazatlan Mexican Restaurant. It hit the spot. Crossing back down W. Burnside I passed longingly in front of Powell's, then headed catty-corner a block further down to my next stop: CounterMedia.

Above left: CounterMedia. Above right: CounterMedia underground comics.

So, you may ask, how does a roughly 1,800 square foot new and used indie bookstore thrive for over 13 years just a block away from Powell's? Simple: by having "the Northwest's largest selection of erotica, underground comics and books on fringe culture", both new and vintage. This is no ordinary bookstore, mind you. Owner and proprietor Charles Boucher said the store carries every erotica title currently in print. Looking around at the vast and varied selection, I was inclined to agree.

Above: two views of the CounterMedia erotica room.

The underground comics and recent erotica were great, but for my money, nothing beat the vast collection of vintage erotica paperbacks. These lurid treatises of early porn, many dating from the 1940's to the 1960's, offered tantalizing tidbits covering everything from the depraved sexual habits of the lower, middle and upper classes to unseemly incidents involving interactions among members of the same family, with plenty of grainy photos and shocking illustrations to go along.

It was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Feeling a little flustered and flushed, I headed next door to Crowsenberg's Half and Half to re-center with a coffee and pastry before heading down one more door to Reading Frenzy, yet another small indie just two doors down from CounterMedia and one block down from Powell's.

This unique little gem of a bookstore is celebrating its 15th anniversary as an "Independent Press Emporium". Tiny at 650 square feet, Reading Frenzy is still four times larger that it was when it opened back in 1994. With a great selection of (new) small and independent press titles and a whole lot of kitsch, it's easy to see how this great little store has managed to flourish in the shadow of Powell's. It provides the perfect coda to a fun day of bookish meanderings.

Heading back on the MAX with the teaming hordes of rush hour commuters and bicyclists, I was able to marvel yet again at the sheer number of decorative embellishments applied to various body parts of the esteemed citizenry. Arriving back at my host's establishment, we headed off to a superb six course prix-fixe meal at one of Portland's most talked about restaurants: Beast.

As the name implies, this unique, tiny and superb haute cuisine establishment is frank in their appreciation of meat. An interesting premise to say the least here in the capital of vegan vegetarianism.

There are two seatings for dinner Wednesday through Saturday evening, with a four-course prix-fixe brunch on Sunday. We selected the six-course wine pairing option to go along with our meal (substitutions respectfully declined) and proceeded to thoroughly enjoy ourselves. Each course was served with an introduction and overview, outlining the local source for every delectable item served. It made for quite an enjoyable evening, at a prix-fixe price that puts many lesser restaurants to shame.

Bleary-eyed with food and drink we headed back home for a night cap before turning in. Tomorrow is reserved for Powell's and after that, it's off to Bend, Oregon for a few days of hiking and of course, perusing the local bookstore scene. Join me won't you!

Until then-


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