SUMMER READS: Book recommendations from Street Roots’ staff, vendors, volunteers, kids and friends.
On June 20, Michelle Lewis and Charles Hannah celebrated the grand opening of Third Eye Books Accessories & Gifts, the only Black-owned brick-and-mortar bookstore in Oregon.
The couple got their start at local markets and street fairs in 2018, vending T-shirts and used books focusing on Black authors from their own extensive collection. In 2019, the couple’s labor of love materialized into Third Eye Books, a store open only on weekends — when Lewis and Hannah weren’t working their full-time jobs — in a 300-square-foot space in a mentor’s building.
But in March 2020, when the pandemic hit, the building closed down and was quickly sold. Lewis and Hannah had a website, but they hadn’t sold more than $200 of merchandise on it.
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Then on May 25, George Floyd’s murder in police custody sparked a national uproar. People were clamoring for anti-racist reading material, and a friend shared Third Eye’s website on an anti-racist chat group on Facebook.
“From there it exploded,” Hannah said. “People went, ‘Oh, there’s a Black bookstore in town! We can get books!’”
Suddenly, the orders poured in.
“Black bookstores were just inundated with white people buying up everything they could find, and us smaller bookstores couldn’t find any of the good stuff, main titles, for a long time. So we had to go with some underground classics to build our catalog up,” Hannah said.
As books became more available, Third Eye was able to sell classic and hard-to-find books by Black authors as well as more mainstream titles.
Lewis told Street Roots the recent racial justice movement has inspired people to educate themselves about the issues.
“We’re still dealing with the uncomfortableness of talking about racism, oppression, the mass murdering of Black and brown folk,” Lewis said. “But people are like, ‘OK, I’m open now, I can read something that’ll kind of force me to change my views.’”
Since last May, the bookstore has filled more than 7,000 online orders.
Lewis and Hannah wanted to open back up in-person, but the pandemic made it difficult. The couple had already lost retirement money they’d invested into their store.
“We can’t afford to get into a place, and they shut this place down. We just can’t do it,” Lewis said.
So they started a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $25,000, hoping to at least cover the first year of rent in a new space. And the donations came pouring in, from $5 to $5,000 — and they hit their goal.
Lewis and Hannah left their careers in social work and early childhood development to devote themselves to Third Eye full time and prepare for the store’s in-person opening. The store focuses on classic Black writers, cookbooks and children’s books, and stocks majority Black authors. Since Reflections/Talking Drum closed in 2017, Portland hasn’t had a brick and mortar Black-owned bookstore.
“Elders got older, couldn’t do it, shut down and that was it, you know,” Lewis said. “So we’re happy to have this space to be able to let everybody know we’re here.” She said the store reflects Black American culture, and it will be a place for community members to shop without being profiled.
Nationally, more than 70 independent bookstores closed last year, and 14 have closed since the start of this year. And others aren’t yet out of the woods, according to Dan Cullen, Senior Strategy Officer of the American Booksellers Association.
One of those is Cameron’s Books, an 83-year-old Portland institution that closed this April after struggling to pay rent amid revenue losses this past year.
Still, bookstores have shown their fighting spirit during the pandemic. According to Cullen, 42 new indie bookstores opened last year and online sales increased 680%.
One of these bookstores that has held on, and even thrived, is Books with Pictures, a queer woman-owned comic book shop in Southeast Portland that aims to highlight comics by and for queer folks, people of color, women, people with disabilities and children. Owner Katie Proctor ran Books with Pictures in a rented space for three years before buying and remodeling the former Longfellows Books building with the help of investors and crowdfunding in 2019.
“We were sort of just getting our feet back under us and getting settled in when closures started happening,” said Proctor.
When Powell’s Books temporarily closed its stores and laid-off the majority of its 500 employees, Proctor thought the book sector was in big trouble. But she launched an analogue order form, curbside pickup and delivery service, and the online orders started coming in. In addition to regulars sticking by the store’s side, Books with Pictures also received orders from out-of-town comics creators buying up all their own books for future conventions, or publishers sending the store a percentage of sales as though the books were being bought at the shop. The store has barely seen a dent in revenue, Proctor said, and 2021 has been a growth year.
“People really turned up for us,” she said. “People bring presents, there’s flowers. There’s just this sense of ‘We are here for you’ that has been really good.”
Because of online orders and pandemic response loans, Proctor was able to keep paying her three staff members, even when the store was closed and they weren’t working.
Used bookstores, on the other hand, have faced another set of challenges.
“For the most part, and historically for used bookstores, their magic is, you step in and spend some time and see what you find or what finds you,” said Brian Juenemann, executive and marketing director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. “So I can imagine it was very, very difficult for people who didn’t have that constant stream of promotion working in their favor to find a way to sell enough books to pay the rent, let alone themselves.”
Amanda Doimas opened Backstory Books & Yarn in 2014 in the Foster-Powell neighborhood, and in 2018 moved to a little storefront that formerly housed Hawthorne Boulevard Books. Doimas has a broad selection of used books and used yarn, but focuses on crafts books, nautical books and African-American literature.
Located on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, the majority of Doimas’ store customers were tourists, so when the pandemic shut everything down, her sales took a big hit. Doimas was unable to buy used books from customers, so she started selling a limited selection of new books as well.
“It’s been so much work trying to sell books,” Doimas said. “But the alternative was just sort of rolling over and dying.”
She decided to post photos of her shelves on her website to approximate the browsing experience that she says is the “magic” of a used bookstore.
“The real magic I think of a used bookstore, or a library even, is the books are next to each other on the shelves,” she said. “That’s where you find something you didn’t know was there. And when you’re confronted with a database, and you have to type something in and search, so much just goes missing, you’d never see it because you only see what you’re searching for.”
Somehow, through a combination of customers choosing to buy local, community rallying around to support, and sheer force of will, independent bookstores in Portland have by and large weathered the pandemic, and come out the other side.
“The deck is stacked against them in the business world, up against the Amazons of the world, that it’s kind of constant crisis mode,” Juenemann said. “And (for customers) not to revert to old habits of clicking that first link online, but think of where that money goes and what that bookstore does for your community.”
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