Many new independent bookstores have opened since the pandemic even though there’s a misconception that they aren’t doing well. Are people tired of canned online recommendations? Are they seeking more human connection? Below are interviews with three North Portland independent bookshop owners in North Portland to seek answers to these and other questions.
Two Rivers Bookstore – owner: Christine Longmuir, 8836 N. Lombard St., in St. Johns neighborhood, Mon-Sat 10-6, Sun 10-4
How did you get into bookselling? I’ve been in bookselling since 1989. I started at Barnes and Noble when I was in graduate school. Then I moved to San Francisco and I worked at a fantastic independent bookstore for many years. Then I made the jump to publishing and then back to bookselling.
How do you choose books? Our community is really into science and natural history. There’s a lot of mystery and science fiction readers and fiction readers. For me, I love cookbooks which is why we have a big cookbook section and that’s why we have a cookbook club. We have a cookbook extravaganza every year. This year it’s from Nov. 5-Nov. 11. If you buy three or more cookbooks, you get 20% off. It’s all in preparation for your big holiday.
What is the specialty of your book store? We have a lot of local everything, local makers, local authors, and local history. We support our local makers with all the markets that we do. I would say local is our specialty and then whatever I get from the community as trade ins. We have a small but healthy children’s section. We might not have a depth of books but we can order just about anything.
How is the customer experience different here than buying books online? Everyone that comes in is my friend and neighbor. If you come in and say, “Well last year I bought my grandkids this book. What do you think about this year? I’m going to remember you.
Amazon might have a record of your selections but they’re not going to ask you questions about what has changed, or what you have read recently, or what your kid has read recently, what they are excited about because they change. It’s about that personal interaction.
I always kid the staff and my customers that I have a 98% success rate if you tell me what you’ve read recently that you loved, I can almost guarantee I’ll pick the next book for you—the right book that you’re going to love.
Revolutions Bookshop – Owners: Brian and Peggy Manning, 8713 N. Lombard St., in St. Johns neighborhood, Hours 12-6 daily
How did you get into bookselling? I worked in libraries a long time. I moved my way up in the library system and was eventually a library associate, basically a librarian without the degree. But it was a culmination of things, a mid-life crisis and also working at my friend Joe’s shop, Belmont Books. I was working there one day a week and thinking, this is actually really fun, and it’s actually feasible as a business.
What do you feel is your specialty? It was always my goal to be a neighborhood book store. We have about 80% used books. So that allows people the chance to trade in books and get different books. That was always my first concentration. A second would be more radical stuff that maybe you don’t find everywhere. A little more with a philosophical and political bent to it.
Also just focusing on really cool stuff. I’d say we try to carry authors whose voices are overlooked or unsung, the outlandish to the bizarre to the brilliant, the subculture, the anti-culture, the counter-culture, the no-culture. St. Johns is very working class too, so of course we have a whole labor section there.
How is the customer experience different here than buying books online? I think the greatest thing about coming into a bookstore—there are two things, one, finding something that you didn’t know you were looking for—so kind of a serendipity. The second thing is people come in, especially lately, not sure of what they’re looking for and they ask for recommendations. They’ll say, “Oh I liked this and this. Do you have historical fiction that’s a little brighter toned, for instance? We can direct people to a book selection. You don’t get that online.
Online booksellers try their best though. They know you have read this book and you read it pretty quickly and maybe gave it five stars. But it’s different than somebody actually handing you a book. Books are actually artifacts. They’re cool. I just sold one yesterday that was from 1884, a Longfellow poetry book with gilded gold edge pages. Now, how many hands had that gone through to get here, and to get to this person who bought it and was super stoked.
What is the advantage of being located in St. Johns’ town center? The advantage is the walking traffic. We don’t have an online store per se, so it’s really kind of serendipity when people will be walking along and they say, “Oh a bookshop. Let’s go in here.”
Arches Bookhouse – Owner: Aaron McInturf. 8900 N. Wall Ave., Portsmouth neighborhood, Mon-Sat 10-5
How did you get started as a bookseller? In college I started working at the book shop on campus because I wanted discounts. I worked at Windows Bookseller with Hilda Monk and Jon Stock. They taught me everything about publishing and selling books online and handling big collections. When Windows moved here in 2016, I took over the shop. Last year I worked out an agreement with Jon to take over this location. So I launched my own shop.
How do you choose books? I try to find things that my customer base in Portsmouth and St. Johns want, but also for the people who like scholarly books. I describe us as a humanities shop. That includes lots of literature, lots of poetry, lots of history, religion, philosophy. I have a lot of books that ask the big questions. They are all questing books. I have a lot more philosophy and religion than most bookstores. I like vintage Penguin books. I like mass market paperbacks with cool art on the cover, I like fine bindings. I like publishers like Nonesuch Press and Folio Society Books.
The goal is to find books that people want but they can’t find. So my job is basically finding books that you want that are hard to find, and priced affordably.
What would you say is your specialty? I do have a big theology section with Judeo-Christian books, Eastern religions, and Islamic books.
How is the customer experience different here than buying books online? The serendipity factor is one thing. When shopping online you’re trapped in your feedback loop, you’re selection algorithm, so you only get shown things that Amazon thinks you already want. Essentially, if you live inside your phone, or inside your computer, you will never be surprised by anything. You’ll never encounter anything beyond your little curated newsfeed. To me that’s the most dangerous thing when people are not exposed to ideas, or to this person or that movement that you never heard of, or this kind of art that’s beyond stuff that you clicked “like” on. So one of the big things is exposure to books that you didn’t know you wanted, that you didn’t know you might like.
I have people who collect books and they like to be able to handle them in person to check the condition. My goal is to make a community around books. That’s why I do this. I want to have an open shop to help create a community that I want to belong to.
Why should people visit you? Because they like books. We have a strong humanities vibe that I think is a little different than other shops.
More and more people are realizing that their health and well-being is aided by getting themselves detached from electronics.
But also, I think that the other enduring factor for books is beauty. Having a tactile reminder of something that you care deeply about.