Store of the Week: Portland's Looking Glass Bookstore

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Bookstores often inspire writers, but how often does one return the favor and pen a poem especially for the store? Looking Glass Bookstore, a 30-year-old store in downtown Portland, Oregon, served as the muse for award-winning poet Derek Sheffield, whose "In the Glass, Looking" adorns the store's bookmark. Sheffield was inspired to write the ode to the bookstore when he saw another poem, inscribed in chalk, on the sidewalk outside the store.

This was part of the store's month long celebration of Poetry Month, last April, explained owner Karin Anna. "Poetry is an important part of our store, and during Poetry Month we chalk a different one outside each weekday. They're short and appropriate. The most fun is to watch how people react to the writing. Some try to ignore it, some carefully step over it, and some read them intently."

Anna has owned the 2,500-square-foot Looking Glass Bookstore since 2001 when she moved across the country and purchased it from longtime owners Bill Kloster and Katie Raditz.

Anna has run the store successfully, despite an inauspicious beginning. She told BTW that she was in negotiations until the end of August 2001 and took possession of the store in October. "Do I need to say more?" she queried, alluding to the terrorist attacks of September 11. "It's been a difficult economic time ever since I bought the store."

Photo credit: Katy Kolker

Portland is a city of many writers, readers, and bookstores. With a population of only half a million, Portland boasts almost 20 ABA member bookstores and many chain bookstores. Anna does not see the other independents as competitors, however. "We don't even consider the word appropriate. We all do very well together," she said. "Every store has its strengths and its loyal customers. We focus on poetry, quality literature, political science, history, and international literature. People come back because they trust our judgment. Our books have all been selected for a reason, [unlike the chains] they're not just there."

The Book Sense Picks lists are a component of the careful selection process. Anna told BTW that reading the lists "is really fun for us. We cut out some of the blurbs and put them inside the books. That explains to people why it's here and why it's featured. I especially like the children's lists."

The Book Sense program "links us together with other bookstores in the minds of the customers," Anna said. "I really think that it has made people aware of independent stores and how we are different. I've had people walk in and ask, 'Is this an independent bookstore?' I think Book Sense is somewhat responsible for that awareness."

As a downtown store, Anna explained, Looking Glass Bookstore doesn't operate as a residential neighborhood store might. "People work in this area during the day, and we don't have evening hours. Most of our special events take place elsewhere; we have very little space here. We have a wonderful selection of children's books for what I call the 'aunt and uncle trade.' We don't have families or children that come in here, but people are always looking for something special for a child."

In selecting frontlist titles for the store, Anna looks for literature to expand horizons. "I'd like us to be known for contemporary literature in translation. I learned at a Pen Writers Conference in International Literature that only seven percent of the hundreds of thousands of titles published each year in this country are translated titles. [Reading literature from another country] is one of the finest ways of understanding the rest of the world and we're always looking for it. 'Reading the World' was part of BookExpo America two years ago. I really hope booksellers continue to work hard on such an important area." --Nomi Schwartz