In the mid-Seventies in Portland, Oregon, there was a column in the Portland Scribe, a “people’s newspaper” written and edited by people who walked in off the street (it was SE Hawthorne actually) who were seriously funky as well as gifted. A regular column was “Entropy Increases Everywhere,” which is a fancy way of saying “things fall apart.” This column was just like a blog, except on paper, and called attention in a vehement and uncensored way to all the ways things were disintegrating. Eventually entropy ended the column.
But other things were forming. When people challenge me to name them, I say, “Well, I can’t and I wouldn’t if I could, because some people look for new things in order to destroy them.” They consider it weeding. But there are always hidden things that grow into something new, for instance, Willamette Weekly.
Among scary entropies, like the fall of tyrants, we are seeing the fall of the traditional labor union, the book store chains (how we hated them when they appeared), and the DVD. I’m watching all of the latter as fast as I can before the tech world goes to streaming, which will mean I have to either go back to books or buy more electronic equipment. At least I can stall until the cost of the equipment comes down. What we now oppose to entropy is chaos theory, which relates to the time of onset of the pattern and predicts that even a small variation will reveal underlying patterns, maybe bringing them to the surface. At least I think that’s what they’re saying. Because I’m not very good at the math and data explanations. What I like is a good story.
So I call it the “84 Charing Street Effect.” Maybe you remember this luv of a movie -- and a book -- about a writer in Manhattan and a bookseller in London, who became close friends over decades, entirely without Facebook. They were nothing alike: a rather abrasive and formidably educated Jewish woman and an equally educated but quite mild and orderly Englishman, who nevertheless enjoyed fiery females. (His wife -- I’d forgotten she was played by Judi Dench, so achingly young -- was Irish.) Nothing happens except a lot of mailing of books and a World War, but we become absorbed in the small changes that in time erase both of them plus that sort of bookstore.
I feel no grief over Borders going into bankruptcy, since it drove so many small indie bookstores to the wall. To me the big chains have only been useful for buying magazines. I might feel badly about Powells collapsing but in a sense Powells is already gone. Or maybe not.
I make this paradoxical statement because to me the definitive Powells is in Chicago near the University of Chicago -- in fact, just down the street from where Meadville/Lombard Theological School used to be. (It’s now sold to the University.) That Powells is small but choice. The mustached fellow on the ladder in the bookstore logo is Michael Powell, the founder of the whole empire, and the store was stocked according to his taste, which was quite like that of the 84 Charing Cross crowd, including many continental and English books on esoteric subjects. The Portland branch, the one that is block-sized, was started by Michael’s father. Here are two interviews:
Michael’s father just simply loved books. In the beginning he sat at the counter and at least once when I took my stack up to the cash register, he looked me over and said, “I think you are a reader. I’m going to knock $5 off the total.” Loving books was part of the secret, the synergy, ecology. Michael’s U of Chicago degree was in politics, he loved people. He really wanted to know what they were reading and why and he defended their right to read ANYTHING. (Torture, porn -- shelved out of the way.) He’s been a strong member of the ACLU in Portland, very active in all the liberal and arts activities as well as standard politics. Michael moved there in 1979, my sophomore year at Meadville and U of Chicago.
But another strong factor in this was wildcat street intellectuals like the ones at the Portland Scribe. Michael hired a “curator” for each knowledge category. You could walk in, ask for who was managing the section on Native American literature and they would KNOW what the trends were, would have read each book, could tell you which were important and which were probably not worth your time. These people worked for pennies because they loved the work. In fact, there were lurkers among the shelves who would give you good advice for free. Gradually, those people disappeared -- maybe starved to death. Now the clerks want a union and a decent wage and health care. That’s fine and I’m sure it’s right and deserved. But it obscures the factors that are at the heart of the bookstore.
Michael speaks of how J.K. Gill’s was the only new bookstore in town and how he decided to stock new books, although many were remainders. Somehow now the new books seem to have mugged the used books by shifting attention in a way Helen Hanff would have mocked and scorned. She was not interested in “newest,” she was interested in the most definitive and it takes time to find out which that is. Not that we should all imitate Helen Hanff, particularly her addiction to cigarettes. I mean, cigarettes have fallen by the wayside, too, haven’t they? And they had ritual and charisma that many people miss, even those of us who never smoked but liked to watch people smoke in movies.
I got distracted by mention of J.K. Gill’s. The basement stocked craft supplies, glitter in little bins, carefully guarded by a dragon clerk so you wouldn’t spill or mix colors. For ten cents, she’d make up a little envelope of red glitter so you could create a Valentine. The basement was old and creaky. Upstairs was new and trendy. I liked the basement. It’s been replaced by (ironically) “Michaels” where you can buy the same glitter, prepackaged for three dollars.
But the point of this wandering discussion was entropy and how it increases everywhere. And the reciprocating point is that love, whether it is love of a subject, of ideas, of books, of bookstores, or of each other, underlies the deeper patterns that according to chaos theory gather it all up again whether or not those patterns are recognized. So now, NOW, you know what? I think a lot of those former Powell’s book clerks are blogging. Skip the books -- straight to print. Same love of subject and dialogue as in the letters of Helen Hanff.