I had come to Portland for a funeral.
My friend Janet, that I’d known since high school, that helped me put my first zine together when we were just sixteen, was dead. Cancer. We’d thought she was beating it but ‘complications’ suddenly had put her back in the hospital and a few days later she was gone.
I wrote up the story of Visions before, here. That’s our ‘zine pictured up there, and the staff photo. I’m in the blazer holding the cane, and that’s Janet next to me on the left, looking relentlessly normal and chipper next to the rest of us hipster art types. That had been her role in my life since I was a teenager, to be the stable, normal one. I couldn’t get my head around the single most reliable person I ever met being gone so suddenly. It was so…. not-Janet.
Julie couldn’t get time off work, and we couldn’t really afford a trip, and I hate funerals anyway. But I had to go, it was Janet. So we’d decided I’d take a Bolt bus down, go to the service, and come right back.
Now here I was, wandering around Portland thinking sad bad thoughts, wishing there was something I could do for Janet’s family and knowing there wasn’t. We’d all gotten through the funeral and the graveside service and once she was in the ground, that was it. When that was done, there was nothing left but to accept the Janet-shaped hole in our lives and move on.
With hours to kill before the return bus, I did what I always did, from junior high on, when I was at a loss. I went to a bookstore. Retail therapy.
Naturally I went to the bookstore that I’d been using to hide out from bad life stuff since the day I discovered it back when I was in high school. Cameron’s. No matter what errand brings me to Portland, even if we’re just passing through on the way to somewhere else, I usually will try to find time for a stop at Cameron’s.
A friend had expressed surprise at this earlier. “Not Powell’s?”
“Powell’s is great. But Cameron’s is more my speed. You can’t find the shitty books I like at Powell’s.” I shrugged. “It’s just…. my place.”
And it was there, blessedly, unchanged. I could feel myself unclenching just walking in.
Portland was in the middle of a heat wave, and Cameron’s doesn’t have AC. Still, I spent a fair amount of time in there. Most of that time was looking at the “media tie-in” shelf. Powell’s does have one of those as well, but it’s way too classy for me. You never see books like these at Powell’s but Cameron’s is stuffed with them.
Licensed books have gotten all respectable now, often even appearing in hardcover these days. But I’m a Bronze Age baby and I remember when it was a furtive, scruffy, underground kind of thing. In my era they were strictly disposable, spinner-rack books …and not particularly respectable spinner racks, either.
I didn’t have a lot of cash to spend, but you never need a lot at Cameron’s– that’s another reason I am so fond of it. After hemming and hawing and picking up several books and putting them down again (including the ones you can see pictured above) I settled on three New Avengers books. Not the Bendis ones from Marvel, these folks.
What can I say? Child of the 70s. Although the main reason I put down the others was because they were adaptations of aired episodes, and we own a lot of those shows. So I was irked to discover that these books were adaptations as well, not originals like I’d thought. It wasn’t noted anywhere on the cover or even on the copyright page. (Despite what some people say, I don’t actually remember every single piece of pop culture I’ve ever been exposed to, so I didn’t catch it despite owning the DVD set.) But what the hell, it was nice to have them just as memorabilia. Call it a little remembrance of Patrick Macnee. My whole weekend was going to be taken up with memorials, it appeared.
Cameron’s also carries a nice selection of vintage juveniles and I fell for this oddball Scholastic edition of the Robert Silverberg space opera Revolt On Alpha C.
This book isn’t a classic, exactly, but it’s good, and it’s Silverberg’s first novel which makes it historically interesting. It’s had a pretty respectable printing history; it originally came out in hardcover in 1955 and since then was reprinted a few times in paperback.
But apparently its most successful appearance was through Scholastic Book Club, it was a perennial for them for well over a decade. This one was from 1969, which meant that it would have been the one I’d have gotten if I’d gotten one back then. Since I was almost never allowed to purchase Scholastic books when the catalog came through the classroom — we never had extra money, and worse, Mom would forbid me to get anything I’d already read, which should tell you how little she understood how my brain worked– I decided I would treat myself.
I’d prowled Cameron’s from end to end and the heat really was getting unbearable, so I made my purchases and departed. Outside was as bad as inside so I decided I better go find somewhere air-conditioned. Unlike Seattle, Portland’s transit system is civilized and they have AC. I thought I could ride a bus for a while and cool off, see the city. I still had a couple of hours to kill and I remembered that there were a bunch of cool bookstores on Southeast Hawthorne, and with Portland’s new transit “frequent service” runs I could be there in minutes. So I hopped a bus.
But my memory failed me and the bus I thought was going out Hawthorne banked south instead and when I looked up from my books we were going over the Ross Island Bridge. I figured what the hell, at least I was getting cooled off. Then I remembered the Paperback Exchange on southeast Milwaukie Avenue, we’d go right past it. Sure enough, there was the stop. I rang the bell and disembarked.
I hadn’t set foot in the place in thirty years and I’d heard that it had become pretty skanky, specializing mostly in porn. But when I lived in Portland, it was my favorite place to go for back-issue comics. That was where I scored a lot of my Marvel Premiere and Savage Sword back issues, and also a lot of “Giant-Size” Marvel books. For some reason our regular spinner-rack never seemed to have those and the Defenders ones, especially, I adored.
In particular, the Jim Starlin-illustrated “Games Godlings Play!” from #3. That was Gerber’s first experiment with prose interludes, which was weird… but I really liked it.
I wasn’t expecting those grand old days where you could get comics like that at Armchair for a buck each (or six-for-five) but I did think they might have something interesting; the old sign was still up and it still said “comics” on it.
I walked in and was greeted with… nothing. Bare wood floor and bare walls with empty shelves. But the sign on the door read OPEN? I checked and yes, it did.
There were only a few stacks of PLAYBOY and PENTHOUSE piled against the back wall, along with a couple of outlier vintage girlie magazines like OUI and GENESIS.
I certainly wasn’t going to go pawing through those. Even though there are a couple of James Bond-related issues of PLAYBOY from the 1960s that might be kind of fun to have, I didn’t feel that strongly about it. Behind me, on the same wall as the door, there were a couple of shelves of paperback Westerns– the really crappy pulp-paperback ones like LONGARM and SLOCUM. Not my thing.
Well, were they going out of business or what? This was getting a little creepy. I said, “Hello?”
“Yes?” It came from behind a right-hand vestibule entrance and I looked through. In a little alcove invisible to the door, there sat a tiny Asian woman, middle-aged, with a tower of Asian porn DVDs piled behind her. “Help you?”
Well, damn it, I’d gotten off the bus for this. “Your sign says ‘comics,’ but I don’t see any.”
“Comics in my house. What you looking for?” I assumed she meant the house directly behind the shop, such as it was. Her accent was very thick and she looked uncomfortable and a little suspicious. I had a hunch there was not a lot of chatting with customers that went on here.
But what the hell, she’d asked and this used to be my main source for them. “Magazine-size comics. From Marvel. In the 1970s.”
“Thees size comic?” She pulled a random PLAYBOY off the shelf and waved it at me. I nodded.
“I have some.” She thought. “What name?”
“Oh, SAVAGE SWORD, PLANET OF THE APES, stuff like that.”
She brightened. “Conan?”
“Yes, Conan, exactly.” I was mostly relieved she knew what I meant. “But, you know, don’t go to any trouble,” I added as I had a horrible vision of me being stuck waiting while she scurried off to search her closets, and meanwhile some trenchcoated pervert would come in and demand I rent him SOAPY SINGAPORE SLUTS or something. “I’m getting on a bus to Seattle in an hour.”
“No, I have them, I have Conan and also Kassir.”
“Kassir?” I had no idea what she meant. “Not Kull, or Kane?”
“Kassir,” she said emphatically. I shook my head and she let out an exasperated sigh. “Like thees,” she said, and scrawled it with a Sharpie on the back of an envelope:
“Oh!” I finally got it. “SAVAGE TALES! With Ka-zar!”
“Yes, that.” She scrawled some more. “Here is my phone number. You call. I mail.”
“Uh-huh.” I pocketed it, thanked her, and left. I probably wouldn’t have called her in any case, but I lost the number so it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I have most of that run already. And doing business with that woman would have felt too weird and desperate and depressing.
So maybe you can’t go home again. The whole weekend had been about things that were gone. Why should this have been any different? At least I still had my memories.
And Cameron’s. I still had Cameron’s. For now.
Enjoy it, Portland, because nothing lasts forever. Cherish the good times while they’re here.
See you next week.
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