Thursday, May 22, 2014

Portland as a city is every bit as nice as everyone claims that it is. The big branded chain stores are hard to find, there really does seem to be an indie coffee house that knows how to make a proper double-shot espresso every 1.5 blocks (or less), the airport has a bicycle assembly area, the basement at Yale Union (an art space being crafted out of an old industrial laundry just east of downtown) has – I saw it with my own eyes – an open creek, there are goats in the vacant lot across the street, I had a great time with several interesting poets & artists, and the sea salt ice cream (laced with caramel) that I consumed at Salt & Straw on NE Alberta Street could be the best ice cream ever. Add majestic views (many of them, quite varied, mostly on northwestern themes) & who cares if it drizzles a little?
However, it’s predictable that a grump like yours truly would find one serious downer amid all this compulsive niceness – the poetry section at Powell’s. I’ve been told – I was surprised how quickly & defensively Portlanders were to respond to this charge – that my sampling may have been unfair in that the section has been relocated temporarily out of the blue room (currently undergoing renovation) and moved up to the third floor behind the rather large events area (many rows of folding chairs). So I won’t chide it for being as out-of-the-way as any poetry section you could find in a B&N anywhere in America. But what really struck me was the many, many empty shelves & overall mediocre selection of what Powell’s did have on display. I’m being churlish, no doubt, since they did have one of my own books available new – ® -- a 1995 Drogue Press volume. The website suggests that there may be a few other volumes hiding in a warehouse somewhere. And frankly I was flattered to be recognized by a checkout clerk who told me that I “looked like a poet” he knew, quickly amended to “knew of.” But when Sean in the porkpie hat showed up at the reading with that book in hand to sign, he & I both noted that Powell’s was now stripped bare of my verse, save maybe for the usual anthologies. Big sigh.
I’m less concerned with my own representation there than with the idea that a poetry section with many empty shelves is as good as one chockablock full (see the Chester County Book Company in the West Goshen Mall, for example). That is just not my notion of how a reseller should operate. I could not find anything to buy in the Powell’s poetry section, where I did in the far smaller (but more crowded) Chester County store just this last month (Wendell Berry on William Carlos Williams to be exact). It was a reminder, yet again, that poetry & the publishing industry are two separate fields with relatively little in the way of overlap.
I wouldn’t even call the Chester County Book Company a great bookstore, but you can see their passion for their product, whereas my sense of Powell’s was that its passion was for the store itself. I did buy some books – an early Kerouac novel from the remainders and a paperback from the earth sciences volumes relegated to a second satellite shop across the street (I suppose they could have hidden poetry there, so maybe I’m being overly harsh). But if you were to ask me to name the great bookstores for poetry in the USA – Woodland Pattern, Moe’s, City Lights, Open Books, St. Marks Bookshop, Bridge Street Books in DC would all come to mind well before Powell’s. The idea that the best poetry bookstore in the US still is in Milwaukee pretty much says it all.