Friday, October 19, 2012

A Post About a Day in Portland, Oregon, Which Has Nothing to do with Books, but is a Lot About Retail, and After All, We area bookSTORE, so it's Vaguely Relevant.

I am away from Boswell for a few days. "Relax, relax," everyone said, and how could you not when you're going to Portland, Oregon? It's for a bookseller meeting. I can say positively that I finished two books on the trip over, which already makes this visit a success. But my hours in the hotel room with no interruption still haven’t made a dent in my email. I find myself tired, whiny, and a bit incoherent, and we're all hoping this break will do me a bit of good.  Our October schedule is actually relatively light, but November is crazy and I need to gear up.

My relationship with Portland is a bit fractured. I'm a bit jealous. Forty years ago it was a sleepy town not too dissimilar from Milwaukee--manufacturing base, a strong middle class with some underlying social problems, living in the shadow of a larger city two hours away. And then there paths diverged dramatically. But I'm not hear to address Milwaukee's social problems or to contemplate the allure of the artist class to Portland's charms. I'm just walking around, looking at stores.

The first thing I notice are the food trucks. There are more than I've ever seen before, and I'm including recent trips to Seattle, New York, and Boston. One of my fellow booksellers said Los Angeles has more, but Portland concentrates them in pods. I suppose John T. Edge was in heaven on his visit for The Truck Food Cookbook. Wow!

I don’t write about it too much, as this is a blog about books and bookstores, specifically Boswell, but I am a retail obsessive. This is actually not unheard of among booksellers. Last night I was eating with a group and learned from a fellow store junkie that Rejuvenation Hardware was bought out by Williams Sonoma (and somewhere along the way, took the "hardware" out of the name, as it sounded too much like the other store mentioned above. During my first trip to Portland, there was a little Powells kiosk in Rejuvenation. I guess they’ve morphed into a fancier brand, and have stores in several cities now.   It happened late last year. He also told me about another retail purchase that hadn't happened yet--it's either false or it hasn't become public yet.

So there goes one Portland icon for me (because whatever they say, the headquarters will likely move to San Francisco someday. So I decided to head to another icon. Our hotel (the Benson, which used to be affiliated with Westin but now is a part of the Coast operation, a brand that seems to be based in Vancouver) is pretty close to the flagship Columbia sportswear store. I walked over, as I’m no longer able to get my favorite low-rise hiking shoe in any Milwaukee retailers. I asked the Boston Store salesperson what happened to the Columbia footwear and she told me that they stopped selling it years ago. The same for Laacke and Joys, and several other places. But it turns out that my shoe, despite pretty good ratings, was retired, and there’s nothing low-rise that is particularly similar. Now I feel how a customer feels when told that my book is out of print and all the second-hand copies are $200 net.

Despite several trips to Portland, I still hadn’t been to Voodoo Donuts, despite having a bit of a donut fetish. I visited Top Pot daily on a trip to Seattle last year, and I start having headaches if I don’t get at least one Donut Plant donut on a New York trip. Part of the problem was that Voodoo used to not open until 10 pm, making it hard to match my schedule. Now it’s a 24-hour operation, and I was said to arrive at a slow time of 4 pm. It was still a 15 minute wait.

If you haven’t been there, they are known for their crazy concoctions they put on one of several bases—plain cake, devil’s food cake, and raised. Anything from cereal to Tang to crushed cookies to neon icings is fair game. I sort of prefer a little subtlety, and want a flavored cake to play off a flavored icing and tell a story, perhaps with a delicate topping. I am also very much into flavor infusion, which you also see with a lot of good cupcakes. That said, I enjoyed my donuts--one at the store, and one the next morning. Voodo is a hugely successful business and don’t need my help, but I’m offering it anyway with an idea that would not compromise their brand one bit—since everyone is waiting outside for a long time, why not put a large menu in the window? I think it would help with the lines.

I’ve been able to travel around to several neighborhoods. There are a lot of chain stores in locations that they wouldn’t consider in Milwaukee, but there are also a lot of indies too, and not just bars and restaurants, which seem to be so dominant in Milwaukee’s urban grid. I worried about Milwaukee’s glut of pizzerias, and found that they were certainly prevalent in Portland too. But all I could really think about before the trip was to eat at a kaiten (conveyer belt) sushi restaurant, and it turns out that there is a Marinepolis Sushi Land near Powells, just blocks from our hotel. I’m not suggesting anyone open one of these in Milwaukee—I scoped some out in Atlanta, and each attempt had failed. I just like the opportunity when I’m traveling.

As I was walking by a storefront,which actually turned out to be a museum window, I passed this display called "Face Each Day." It's an artist installation by Jason Sturgill. I liked it, and I suspect you are not surprised by that.

On Saturday I am going on a field trip to several Powell’s City of Books stores, so my journey to retailmania hasn’t ended. And Halley asked me to bring back some chocolates from Moonstruck. We’ll see what I can do.

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