Monday, September 1, 2008

Book Tour: Spokane, Washington and Portland, Oregon

By Melissa

Auntie's Bookstore
402 W. Main Ave
Spokane, Washington

Powell's Books
1005 W. Burnside
Portland, Oregon

This tour could be called lots of things: Pacific Northwest (though I didn't stop in Seattle), the Fox Family Reunion tour (my husband hails from Spokane, and he has siblings and friends in Portland), but I think the best name for it should be: The Battle of the Independents. I hit the two extremes of independent bookstores on this trip: a small, struggling-yet-somehow-making it store in a mid-size community; and a massive bookstore in the middle of a bustling big city, and the only independent bookstore to give the big box stores a run for their money (at least in Portland).

In Spokane, we stopped in at Auntie's Bookstore, a Spokane staple for the past 30 years. My husband remembers frequenting the store as a child, but at a different location farther away from the center of the downtown area. Seven years ago, however, they moved to their current location a block away from the Spokane River and Riverfront Park. It's a prime location, not only to catch workers downtown, but the tourists and other locals heading to the park, especially in the summertime. And Auntie's has a lot to offer. Open, airy, yet incredibly cozy, it's the perfect place to browse as well as sit and leaf through a book or two. The staff was incredibly helpful and friendly, searching for all our book requests and (mostly) having them in-stock, much to our delight. The children's section, while a bit sparse on books, was beautifully decorated and an incredibly welcoming place for kids to be. In addition to supplying all the independent bookstore needs in Spokane (by all counts, they are the only one), they offer venues for regional authors -- including book promotions and signings -- as well as a myriad of book groups and programs. Another nice bonus was the adjacent Uncle's -- specializing in board, card and role-playing games for all ages. My children (and husband) did as much browsing in there as they did in Auntie's, and (of course) we made several purchases there as well. The only thing that was truly missing was a cafe/coffee shop adjacent to the store, but I did notice some construction near the back, so perhaps that will soon be remedied. Though I suppose that speaks to an important point: independent bookstores--unless their unique demographic appeal or particular economic situation within the community makes it unnecessary--have been obliged to offer the same sort of things which Borders and Barnes and Noble have shown that all us customers want in order to survive. Of course, it was small, local, independent bookstores that were offering places to sit and read and listen to authors and drink some hot cocoa long before anyone else; the big stores simply hit upon a marketing strategy which combines those intimacies with a huge inventory of books. And plainly, it is a strategy that works. I don't know how independent bookstore owners are going to get through this dilemma, but at the very least, I'm grateful that stores like Auntie's are still going strong.

At the other end of the spectrum, there was our pilgrimage to Powell's Books in Portland. I'm not sure if I've ever been in a bookstore that immense before -- not having explored bookstores in other large cities; perhaps it is common for a bookstore to take up three floors of a building spanning an entire city block. Perhaps not. I can also say that everything that you've heard is true: it's huge, they do give you a map when you walk in, everything is impeccably categorized (and logically, too), and they have everything. Literally. There wasn't a book I -- or my husband, whose tastes run a little more obscure than mine -- looked for that I couldn't find. (Though that's not entirely true: my husband, who is a college professor, also attempted to track down some just-published academic titles, and they didn't have a single one. So, I guess Powell can't quite compete with Harvard University's campus bookstore, if that's the sort of things you're looking for.)

And as for the diversity...well, they had an entire section on the Kama Sutra (which I found amusing); travel books to satisfy my every whim; aisles and aisles of graphic novels; rooms full of science fiction and fantasy and fiction and politics (and everything else in-between, including a nice Portland/Pacific Northwest regional section); plus book kitsch galore. I did notice later, however, as I walked around downtown Portland, several other independent bookstores, and I wondered if they hate Powell's as much as independent bookstores in other towns hate Borders and Barnes & Noble. Its size is one of its main draws, but it's also a drawback -- we were there for nearly three hours, and exhausted ourselves before we even managed to wander through the entire store. And it was difficult to leave too, because even in approaching the check-out counter, there were shelves and shelves you have to pass by, all of them crammed with books, begging to be quickly scanned before you go out the exit doors. (I had to drag my husband out--"I have to take a look at these...wait, I just remembered one more book I need to look'll only take a minute!") I hate to say it, but I think it was almost too much to process in one trip. The other downside is the lack of seating. Because the space needs are all taken up with books, there is no real place to sit and peruse books. There are a couple of wooden benches, but they are few and far between, and not exactly the most comfortable place to immerse oneself in a good story. But, perhaps that's the point: Powell's is a place to go and find something -- possibly something hard-to-find, possibly something rare, possibly the new best-seller -- and not to kick one's feet up and chill with a latte. That said, it was completely worth it to make a stop there. The hard part was just figuring out what to buy.

But isn't that always the case, no matter what size the store is?

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