The Writer’s Life: Another Portland Bookstore & Its Fate

erick mertz author, portland bookstore
Will The Lights Go Out At Cameron’s Books?

Growing up as a book nerd in Portland, Oregon, one might expect mighty Powell’s to be my home away from home. The self-described “city of books” has always stood out as one of “those” places, even back in the grimy days. Long before it was a tourist destination, Powell’s was the quintessential Portland bookstore, feeling like it was the kind of place where anything could happen.

More than Powell’s Books, however, growing up, I loved Cameron’s. It was the seedy other, a dark secret contrast in the Portland bookstore universe. When we skipped school to go downtown, after all, it wasn’t Powell’s we visited.

No, it was Cameron’s Books.

What’s New York Got To Do With It?

My parents are both New Yorkers. Although I spent the bulk of my formative years in Portland, there was a certain grittiness that followed west from their upbringing.

New York is a different place. I try and describe it to my five-year-old son. New York is faster, louder and dirtier.

More than anything else, however, it is prouder.

Coming west down Harvey Milk Street and looking north on 3rd Avenue, Cameron’s Books resembles my youthful imagination of New York City. I was always curious about “place” as a young person. Maps held great fascination. Whenever someone pointed to a picture of a scene from the Big Apple, I didn’t just glance at the places and faces – I absorbed the details.

With its big mustard yellow and auburn sign, racks of quarter books outside and piles of magazines as long as a city block, not to mention the leery eyes of the denizens within, this place was big city dreamlike in every possible manner.

Portland Bookstore: A Requiem?

News went out over the local media outlets recently: Cameron’s Books was set to close up shop. The owners were losing their lease, and although shuttering the bookstore business altogether had not been made official – yet – the writing was on the proverbial wall.

Another Portland bookstore bites the dust.

This is not an uncommon story. In the time it took me to write this article, a half-dozen small businesses like Cameron’s Books will get a similar notice.

This is a sad story for sure, but it is also confusing. Time marches on. Everything around you confirms this is reality.

Our need to memorialize is a core aspect of our humanity. It’s not overly sentimental to not really know how to say good-bye.

Love mourns and that is complicated. And that is simply how it is.

I think what makes the news about Cameron’s Books confusing, however, is how we make our sadness tribal. Portland bookstore people will mourn the closure, whatever the outcome, even if it results in a move. Record store people light a candle for the next dusty platter shop to shutter.

And restaurant people? Well, their glass is seemingly always raised to that last great so-and-so place in town.

Maybe the mourning should be more collective. We do not mourn incremental changes any more.

Instead, it feels to me like it’s bigger. There is a wholesale shift. While places like Cameron’s Books felt like a little piece of a bigger world, they’re being replaced by things that feel like anything else.

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