I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but it happens to me a lot, at least with my older books.
I pick up a book or a comic and I almost always have a momentary flashback to where I was when I bought it. (That is, a flashback to the first time I bought it; I’ve replaced a number of books over the years.)
I think that for me this is because when I was younger, it was so difficult to get hold of books and comics. It required planning — I don’t mean financial planning, though that certainly was a factor too. No, I’m talking about the fact that from the seventh grade or so until I left for college in the fall of 1979, I had to literally smuggle my books and comics into the house.
The reason for this was… well, a lot of it had to do with my mother’s paranoia. It wasn’t exactly forbidden for me to read comics and trashy paperbacks, but Mom certainly didn’t approve of them… and she would have forbidden quite a few if she’d ever actually looked at any of them.
So I figured, you know, why have the fight at all? It was my money, I’d earned it mowing lawns and doing chores and so on, and by God if I was going to spend it on an issue of Savage Sword of Conan with a topless dancing girl in it or something, well then, that was my own damn business.
(Reading all the Frazetta obits and eulogies last week, I couldn’t help but remember how every time Mom saw one of those covers it started a fight. Book, record, it didn’t matter. It didn’t even have to have a naked girl on it.)
Moreover, there was another factor. All the really cool books and comics, I discovered, were not generally available in our little bedroom suburb. No, as nearly as I could figure from poring over the Yellow Pages in those pre-internet days, the good stuff was all — gulp — Downtown. I’d have to go Into The City.
I vividly remember all the different times Mom would go off on a rant about how The City had been overrun with Skid Row Bums and Stinky Hippies and Weird Creeps, and how glad she was that we lived in a NICE place, and on and on and on.
Now, those of you that have seen current photos of the town I was raised in, or of downtown Portland itself, will no doubt conclude that my mother was some sort of Stepford Wife to class all those metrosexual joggers and latte-drinking commuters as dangerous. And that case is there to be made, certainly… Mom was kind of a paranoiac about anything out of her usual orbit. (In fairness, though, this was thirty-five years ago, before they’d really started cleaning up Portland’s downtown.)
But to me and my friends, that was what made it cool. There was that delicious whiff of the forbidden about it. A hint of danger. And damn it, the city was where all the good stuff was.
Our first expedition could have gone better. When I was about fourteen, my friend Phil and I hatched a plot to sell our old “kid stuff” books and then blow the wad on cool new stuff. I had some odds and ends, Scholastic paperbacks, things like that, and Phil had a nearly-complete set of the Hardy Boys in hardcover. Between us we each had a fully-loaded duffel of old books, which ought to be good for a little cash, at least. We figured we’d take the bus in on a Saturday and be in and out of the whole thing in a couple of hours, with no one’s parents the wiser.
Since there was no internet and definitely no Google, the research took a little while. We split the detail work between us. After going through the phone book and making a couple of calls, I decided that the best price for the stuff would probably be from a place called Armchair Paperback Exchange in east Portland. Meanwhile, Phil worked out the bus schedules that would get us from our safe suburb to the depths of the concrete jungle and back again. The transit mall that dominates downtown Portland today didn’t exist yet, so riding the bus was a lot trickier… you had to know where everything was or look it up, and remember, there was no jumping on the internet to check bus schedules or even Mapquest. (We were using actual maps.) And all of this on the sly, lest a nosy parent inquire what we were looking at on the map or why we were going over the Yellow Pages so intently. Seriously, this was an expedition.
We figured to take the #36 bus towards downtown, but just before hitting the city center itself we’d disembark at the Ross Island Bridge, walk across, and presto, there we’d be.
Because it’s kind of…. long. Like, really long. If you’re on foot. And carrying a big bag of books. We were young but not in particularly great shape (bookworms, nerds, whatever, our tribe is not known for its athletic prowess) and the wind cut like icy knives.
About a third of the way across we both realized what an amazingly bad plan this was, but it was too late to quit or go back. It felt like it took forever to get across, though it really could only have been forty minutes or so. The span of the bridge itself is 3700 feet, and after you add in the walk from the bus stop to the bridge and the walk from the other end of the bridge to the intersection of Milwaukie and Southeast Powell where the bookstore was, well, it ended up being a little over a mile’s walk with two duffel bags full of books. Today I’d probably keel over of a heart attack halfway across. Even at age fourteen, it was somewhat daunting, especially with the freezing winds that we were totally unprepared for. Thankfully, we got across before it actually started raining. Anyway, we made it.
When we got to the other side, the neighborhood looked to be everything my mother had predicted. There was a dilapidated theater advertising XXX FILMS ALL DAY AND ALL NIGHT, and across the street was a Tastee-Freez that had definitely seen better days.
And just past the theater, there it was. Armchair Paperback Exchange.
Honestly? There was some discussion about whether or not we should even chance going in. It looked pretty skanky, and it WAS next to a porno theater. But in the end the thought of getting rid of all those achingly heavy books was just too glorious to pass up.
The place was kind of a hole, no doubt about it. Smelled musty and stale. Filled floor-to-ceiling with books of all kinds, with only the most minimal order. There was kind of a mystery shelf, kind of a science-fiction room, and through one alcove….
…. there were comics. Floor to ceiling, an entire room of comics. No longboxes, just stacks and stacks of back issues, wrapped individually in Saran Wrap with a price scrawled on the wrapping in black marker.
All my aches and fears– all other thoughts, really– fell away. The guy had back issues. I could — Jesus, he had old Defenders. The Giant-Size ones that never seemed to show up at the grocery store rack in my neighborhood.
And magazine comics. Our grocery didn’t carry any of those, either, and the tantalizing Bullpen Bulletins advertising them had me in a fever of comics-lust that summer. Here they all were. Savage Sword. Rampaging Hulk. And, holy Christ, there was Star-Lord.
I let Phil negotiate for his Hardy Boys with the owner, a grizzled old guy in a Hawaiian shirt. Me, I could have happily spent the rest of the weekend in that comics alcove.
When it got to be my turn I think I ended up trading most of my stuff instead of getting cash. I cleaned him out of all the Gerber Defenders I didn’t have, Savage Sword #1 and #2, the issues of Marvel Preview featuring Star-Lord (only #4 and #11, at that point) and a couple of Rampaging Hulks. I did remember to get enough cash to cover the bus fare back home. I forget how Phil made out… but I definitely got the better deal that day, of that much I’m sure. And despite being gone about four hours longer than originally proposed, neither of us got yelled at — probably because we made it home while it was still daylight.
Those original comics are long gone, of course. I think I sold most of them off when I left for college, very possibly to that same grizzled old guy, since we did a lot of business over the next few years. (Especially after I figured out that I could catch the #36 into downtown, walk a block and transfer to the #9 outbound and it would whisk me across the Ross Island Bridge and drop me right at the theater.) Today most of my copies of that stuff are in bound trade paperback collections…. but I can never see any of those stories– or even the characters, in the case of Star-Lord– without a momentary flash to that ridiculous trek across the bridge and the musty old smell of the Paperback Exchange.
That happens to me a lot. Every time I think of Byron Preiss’ old Fiction Illustrated, I remember Portland’s old Looking Glass Bookstore on Southwest Taylor between Fourth and Fifth Avenue.
The Looking Glass has moved over to the Sellwood neighborhood now, and has turned into quite a respectable place from what I hear. But back in the late 1970s it used to be part bookstore and part head shop, with a bunch of pipes and bongs under glass up front and the whole place stinking to high heaven of lavender and patchouli and incense. They had underground comics, art books, high-end small-press ‘zines, all kinds of amazing stuff.
That was where I found Star*Reach and Ariel and Mediascene and Lone Star Fictioneer.
When my friend Joe first got his driver’s license that was one of our regular stops — we’d mostly visit record stores like Music Millennium and guitar shops and stuff, since that was Joe’s primary interest, he was a musician — and, after all, he was driving. But he’d often throw in a stop at the Looking Glass as a sort of bone for me. Other times I’d hop a bus into downtown on a Saturday and go straight to the Looking Glass on my own.
Around the corner from the Looking Glass, on 5th, was a nasty old smoke shop, right across from the old Greyhound station, that carried not just comics but also fanzines, and that’s where I first found The Comics Journal (My first one was #53, with the Harlan Ellison interview that started all the trouble) and Comics Feature.
It wasn’t until the Journal went to its current squarebound format that I stopped smelling tobacco and burnt coffee every time I picked one up, but the sense memory of the smoke shop is forever associated with the older issues for me.
Most of these places are gone now, as Portland got cleaned up and gentrified and metrosexed all through its downtown. The Looking Glass moved to Sellwood, and it’s all gallerias and transit down there today where it used to be on southwest Taylor.
Some of my old Portland haunts are hanging in there. Cameron’s, down on southwest 3rd and Stark, is still the best place on earth to find sleazy pulp paperbacks no one’s ever heard of.
Julie and I usually try to find time to stop in here when our road trips take us through Portland.
And I still can load up on a dozen pulpy paperbacks for five or ten bucks. I keep thinking the word’s going to get out on the place and the prices will go up, but I honestly think that the guy doesn’t care about the books other than to break even. He’s all about the old magazines.
Which works out great for guys like me.
Julie and I are trying to figure out what to do for this year’s road trip, and we probably will pass through Portland again at least for an afternoon. I discovered to my delighted amazement when I was researching this that the Armchair Paperback Exchange is still in business.
So we’re definitely checking that out. (I think we’ll drive across the bridge to get there this time.) I wonder if some grizzled old guy still runs the place. I wonder if it’s sill a musty-smelling hole.
Probably not. Probably it’s been cleaned up and organized, at least a little. Bookstore owners are starting to figure out how to market comics.
Truthfully, that’s probably a good thing. I think that on the whole the industry is better off with smart retailers running clean, brightly-lit shops in places no one’s afraid to visit. And certainly I haven’t hesitated to avail myself of the internet and the ease of buying from online dealers, as well.
But… sometimes I kind of miss the skanky old underground places I used to have to sneak out to. That slight whiff of danger… even if it was often combined with stale smoke and mildew, there was still something fun there.
See you next week.
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