The assignment came like a gauntlet thrown.
EMAIL FROM MY EDITOR: Portland, Oregon is the most literary city in the country. If you love books, you should go there right away.
MY REPLY: I’m looking at tickets as we speak.
It was really that simple — I’d been longing to see Portland and didn’t need much convincing. Before leaving, I queried a local Portland author to find out how the city’s book culture supports her. Mary Elizabeth Summer, author of Trust Me: I’m Lying, a young adult mystery series, was more than a little enthusiastic:
“It’s the compounding interest of creativity,” she gushed. “You can’t walk anywhere in this town without tripping over books, and that, my friend, is the only kind of town I want to live in.”
That was just what I wanted to hear. I donned a trench coat and fedora and headed north to investigate (though the detective outfit was more for dealing with rain than anything else). My first stop was a place to put up for the night:
The Heathman is a grand, historic hotel in the Financial District. Forget your kindle — the hotel boasts its own lending library of more than 2,700 volumes signed by visiting authors. (To get your book into The Heathman library, you have to spend the night and sign the book during your stay.)
That’s just the tip of the book-lover’s iceberg. Four days a week, there’s a library social of wine and great reads, hosted by in-house librarian Amy Rogers. For an additional fee, you can access the Books By Your Bedside package, which gives you a signed book to keep, plus library lending privileges. The Heathman will also make a $15 donation in your name to SMART (Start Making A Reader Today), a non-profit program to encourage reading for kids.
While The Heathman offers a lot in the way of book love, especially for a hotel, it won’t satisfy the hardcore reader longing to hunt for the objects of their affection in the wild. For the bookshop experience, there’s only one place to go and everyone who’s ever set foot in Portland knows it:
Powell’s claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. Their flagship location in Portland’s Pearl District occupies a full city block and multiple floors. There are annex stores and a rare book room — there’s even a map of the sections so that you don’t get lost.
Better than the quantity of the books is the quality of the people. The Powell’s staff is comprised of book junkies. They stand ready to meet your most ambitious book challenge — for a compulsive reader, that’s thrilling.
After several hours of prowling Powell’s, you’ll crave a place with a fireplace, classic wood paneling, and deep leather sofas that you can sink into. You also might want a drink, which means you ought to visit:
This location is on-theme because library and awesome because whiskey. Reminiscent of a 1920s speakeasy, what MWL lacks in books (they have none), they make up for in spirits (more than 1,200 different varieties and counting). It’s also a great place to sip and ponder your future literary pursuits; even if that simply means deciding which tome to devour next.
Portland aces these sorts of places, where you can drink and read and not feel any pressure. The local cafe culture also has the “feel free to linger” vibe — which is a relief for someone arriving with a few books in tow. But ever has it been with books that one spins you off to another. Assuming that your luggage space and buying budget aren’t infinite, you should head to:
The Central Branch of the Multnomah County Library, located right downtown, is old and majestic and open seven days a week. It has story time for kids in the Beverly Cleary Children’s Library, access to private workspaces specifically designed for writers, and special events scheduled virtually every day.
Is all of this not bookish enough for you? Do you need the chance to hang with the literary elite? If so, check one of the city’s tentpole events:
In general, Portlanders are known for their festivals (they basically celebrate everything), but books and the written word have an elevated place in the heart of the populace. Literary-Arts.org supports and funds an astonishing array of programs. The Author Lecture Series — which brings literary crème de la crème on stage — runs from October to April and sells out the swanky, 5,000-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
For serious book lovers, there’s also The Delve Readers Seminar, offering an opportunity for readers to explore challenging books in a lively, discussion-based setting led by a scholar. Finally, there’s Wordstock, Portland’s huge, book-a-trip worthy November literary festival. Everyone I encountered in Portland, from waiter to clerk to doorman to librarian, raved about Wordstock.
What Literary Arts offers Portland’s passionate reading community, The Late Night Library provides for its writing community. LNL is a non-profit, volunteer-run, grass-roots organization that supports a multitude of projects and events. There’s Late Night Media, which raises awareness for contemporary literature through podcasts, videos, and blog columns; and All Fines Are Forgiven, a book-themed variety show complete with live performances and interviews with authors and musicians. The LNL Book Club is also dedicated to helping launch debut and indie authors.
Seriously, who does that? What is this paradise? You want more? You want books-as-performance art?
Live Storytelling & Staged Readings
It’s easy to imagine a book lover nestled away in seclusion, curled up by a fire. And, while that is true at times, Portlanders bring their literary love into the streets and up on stage. The famous Moth Story Slam, “True Stories Told Live,” may be the best-known story event around, but it’s definitely not the only one. There’s also Urban Tellers, Mystery Box (sex themed!), Backfence, Mortified, Portland’s Storytellers Guild, Testify: A Musical Storytelling Revival, Campfire Storytelling and Awkward Phases. These live story events are so popular that tickets often sell out within 24 hours. However, they occur all over town on a monthly and bi-monthly basis, so you never have to go long without getting another chance to secure your spot.
As if literary hotels, bookstores, libraries, events, authors in schools, scholarly discussions, festivals and story slams aren’t enough to catapult Portland into the top slot of literary city-dom, there’s actually more…
I’m talking ancillary, literary-themed products produced by local artists. Tori Tissell, the creator and proprietor of Storiarts, which produces a unique line of literary-themed scarves, had this to say:
When you make literary-themed apparel in a city that holds the only literary convention in the NW, has multiple book binding studios, hundreds of writers, and the country’s largest independently owned bookstore, people are bound to understand what you do and why. And they tend to want it. Portland is certainly a very well read and smart city, so it’s only natural that its inhabitants would want to express that and scarves are a lot easier to wear than books.
Tori is right about wearing what you love. When my time investigating the Portland literary scene was up, I realized that her “Dracula scarf” would go perfectly with my trench coat and fedora ensemble. As I headed out of town, I catted with author Mary Elizabeth Summer one more time about why readers and writers should come to Portland.
Portland is a creativity petri dish, propagated by the unspoken yet ubiquitous understanding that you are one-hundred-and-fifty-percent supported no matter what creative thing you want to do. That constant, unconditional encouragement acts as a vibranium-steel shield against a writer’s worst enemies: fear of censure and self-doubt. The more writers that Portland attracts, the more opportunities arise for book lovers of all stripes.
As for when to go? There’s no need to chase a festival or event, there are so many literary happenings that it’s better to find the perfect season. For me, winter was ideal — it’s wet and grey and perfect for indoor pursuits. Because by spring, the weather will turn, then there are not only the full slate of book-nerd things to do, but there are also food festivals and beer festivals and hikes to go on and…
It’s really a wonderful place in general. And if you love to read, you should book a ticket right away.
FIND HOTELS AND SAMPLE ITINERARIES AT TRAVEL PORTLAND